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Help Swallows, Nighthawks, and Flycatchers by Creating an Insect Buffet

Birds that swoop or dart to catch bugs in flight are called aerial insectivores—and they need your help.

Illustration of birds flying with insects.
Tree Swallows chase mayflies. Illustration by Vera Ting / Bartels Science Illustrator 2023.

This article is adapted from a PDF brochure created by NestWatch. Download the original PDF to print out your own copy or share with others.

Graceful. Colorful. Helpful. You may have seen them in flight, swooping up, down, and all around, on the hunt for their insect prey. Then again, maybe not. Some are nocturnal. Camouflaged. Elusive.

But they all have one thing in common: birds that gulp down insects while flying—whether it’s dawn, dusk, day, or night—are known as aerial insectivores. In North America, this group includes species in the swallow and martin, swift, nightjar, and flycatcher families.

Unfortunately, many aerial insectivore populations have been steeply declining since the 1980s—as have insect populations. So how can we help bring these agile fliers back to our yards, farms, cities, and wild spaces?

Help Insects by Providing Healthy Habitat

Illustration of a shiny blue and white bird flying over flowery field with another blue and white bird perched on a nest box.
Letting open spaces grow up with long grasses and wildflowers creates habitat for flying insects. Tree Swallow scene by Vera Ting / Bartels Science Illustrator 2023.

Aerial insectivores eat flying insects as their primary food source year-round. If you have a yard, patio, or outdoor space that you manage, chances are you’re sharing your habitat with both insects and aerial insectivores. The choices you make matter for them. Try these suggestions to improve habitat for nature’s bug-zappers.

Let Grasses Grow Longer

Grasses and wildflowers can provide excellent habitat for insects—especially if allowed to grow longer and wilder than a typical lawn. Meadows provide important habitat for a diversity of insects and safe cover for ground-nesting birds. If you can control the mowing schedule for where you live:

  • reduce mowing as much as possible to keep insects and nesting birds safer
  • leave grass at least 3 inches tall so other plants retain their flowers and support pollinators
  • for large grassy areas, try to avoid mowing during the nesting season for your region (USDA Farm Service Agency)
  • try to reduce the overall area of grass in your lawn
  • leave buffer strips or areas with longer grass along lawn edges

Focus On Water Resources

Insects tend to congregate over bodies of water. These irreplaceable “nutrient hotspots” need protection from disturbances like urbanization, agricultural pesticides, and fertilizers. If you have a backyard or farm pond, don’t mow right up to the edge; leave a vegetation buffer around it to provide places for insects to feed, rest, and lay eggs. This will also attract aerial insectivores that may nest nearby.

Cater to Their Needs With Native Plants

Native plants are those that have been growing in your region for thousands of years. Evidence shows that native plants support more insects than non-native or exotic species. Plant-finder tools from Pollinator Partnership and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will help you determine which plants are native to your region and which can increase your property’s value to birds, insects, and other wildlife.

Save Insects—Avoid Pesticides

Applying broad-spectrum pesticides can harm birds that eat insects, killing many kinds beyond the target species. With fewer insects buzzing through the air, there’s less food to support healthy aerial insectivore populations.

  • encourage insects in your spheres of influence: turn off the bug zapper and put down the insecticide sprayer
  • control garden pests by applying soapy water directly to affected plants
  • use protective clothing and bug spray to keep insects from bothering you, while letting them fly elsewhere

Be Climate Smart

Heat and drought can impair hatching and fledging success of nesting birds. Research shows that aquatic and terrestrial insects are emerging earlier as early spring temperatures get warmer. Some bird species are trying to keep up by nesting earlier, but constraints on the other parts of their life cycle (e.g., migration, replenishing energy reserves) limit just how well they can match the changing pace of insect activity. Using clean energy, lowering your carbon footprint, and supporting policies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions may delay climate warming.

Give Birds Places to Nest

Helping insects thrive is largely a matter of reducing pesticides and providing vegetation—but birds need dedicated nest sites. Aerial insectivores nest in remarkably diverse locations—in tree hollows and nest boxes, on homes and buildings, on the ground, high on gravel rooftops, in sandy burrows, under bridges and eaves, and in chimneys, for instance. Though these sites can sometimes be inconvenient, tolerating or encouraging them can be a big factor in helping populations recover.

Make Room for Nesting Activities

Offer Them Nest Boxes and Other Nest Sites

For some aerial insectivores, making room for their nesting activities for a few weeks each year may be enough. But for other species, you may need to create new nest sites.

  • For Tree Swallows and Violet-green Swallows: provide nest boxes in open areas like yards and fields
  • For Barn Swallows: place a nesting shelf just underneath the eaves of a home, garage, or other building
  • For Purple Martins: these large swallows rely on actively managed “martin houses” provided by dedicated, passionate people known as Purple Martin landlords
  • For Common Nighthawks: a flat gravel rooftop is a satisfactory place to nest, while smooth-surfaced rooftops are unsuitable. Maintaining stone rooftops with pea gravel can support more urban Common Nighthawks, and females will return to these sites year after year
  • Make nest boxes safer by using free-standing poles and attaching predator guards
  • Leave dead trees standing when possible, as these make desirable natural nest sites.
  • Download nest box plans for swallows, martins, and many other species via NestWatch’s Right Bird, Right House tool.

Tips for Attracting 9 Kinds of Aerial Insectivores

  • Illustration of two blue and white birds, one brighter than the other.

    Tree Swallow

    Tachycineta bicolor

    Habitat: grassland, lake, marsh, shore

    Breeding Range: northern North America

    Diet: dragonflies, damselflies, flies, mayflies, caddisflies, true bugs, bees, ants, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths, spiders.

    Nesting period: mid-May to July

    Download a nest box plan

  • Illustration of two birds, green and white with touches of purple, one with a green head, the other with a brownish head.

    Violet-green Swallow

    Tachycineta thalassina

    Habitat: grassland, lake, marsh, shore, mountain, open woodland

    Breeding Range: western North America

    Diet: flies, leafhoppers, leafbugs, aphids, flying ants.

    Nesting period: mid-May to August

    Download a nest box plan

  • Illustration of flying bird, blue and chestnut head, v-shaped dark tail with a white stripe.

    Barn Swallow

    Hirundo rustica

    Habitat: grassland, lake, shore, town

    Breeding Range: near-global distribution

    Diet: mainly flies, also beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths

    Nesting period: early May to August

    Download a nest box plan

  • Illustration of two birds, one dark blue/black, one gray-blue and white, perching together.

    Purple Martin

    Progne subis

    Habitat: desert, town, lake

    Breeding Range: North America

    Diet: beetles, flies, dragonflies, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, moths, wasps, bees, caddisflies, spiders, cicadas, termites, mayflies.

    Nesting period: early April to August

    Download a nest box plan

  • Illustration of a sitting grey, brown, and white patterned bird, with a small bill with whiskers.

    Common Nighthawk

    Chordeiles minor

    Habitat: grassland, forest, open woodland, town, lake, shore

    Breeding Range: North America, parts of Central America

    Diet: queen ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mosquitoes, bugs, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers

    Nesting period: late May to August

    May nest on the ground or gravel rooftops

  • Illustration of sitting brown, tan, and cream bird with a small bill and whiskers.

    Lesser Nighthawk

    Chordeiles acutipennis

    Habitat: desert, grassland, open woodland, town, lake, shore

    Breeding Range: southwestern North America, parts of Central and South America

    Diet: flies, mosquitoes, moths, June bugs, leafhoppers

    Nesting period: mid-April to August

    May nest on the ground or gravel rooftops

  • gray bird with a llittle orangish wings and a yellow abdomen, perches on a log.

    Great Crested Flycatcher

    Myiarchus crinitus

    Habitat: woodlands, particularly with deciduous trees

    Breeding Range: eastern North America

    Diet: insects and other invertebrates, small berries, and other fruits

    Nesting period: May through July

    Download a nest box plan

  • A gray bird with a reddish ubderbellly stands on a branch.

    Say’s Phoebe

    Sayornis saya

    Habitat: open country, sagebrush, badlands, dry barren foothills, canyons, and borders of deserts

    Breeding Range: western North America

    Diet: insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, and bees

    Nesting period: Mid-April to August

    Download a nest box plan

  • A small furry little brown bat sits on rocks, mouth open, echolocating.

    Little brown bat

    Myotis lucifugus

    Habitat: Open or wooded areas near water; maternity colonies are in attics, bat houses, other human structures, and sometimes hollow trees

    Breeding Range: North America

    Diet: mosquitoes, midges, caddisflies, moths, hoppers, small beetles, and spiders

    Maternity season: pups are born May to June and nurse for 2+ months

    Bat house plans

Illustrations by Holly Grant. Great Crested Flycatcher by Daniel Jauvin / Macaulay Library, Say’s Phoebe by Neil Rucker / Macaulay Library, little brown bat by John MacGregor / USFWS.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library