The most common hirundine plumage is glossy dark blue or green above and plain or streaked underparts, often white or rufous. Species which burrow or live in dry or mountainous areas are often matte brown above (e.g. sand martin and crag martin). The sexes show limited or no sexual dimorphism, with longer outer tail feathers in the adult male probably being the most common distinction. The more primitive species nest in existing cavities, for example in an old woodpecker nest, while other species excavate burrows in soft substrate such as sand banks. Swallows in the genera Hirundo, Ptyonoproggne, Cecropis, Petrochelidon and Delichon build mud nests close to overhead shelter in locations that are protected from both the weather and predators. The mud-nesters are most common in the Old World, particularly Africa, whereas cavity-nesters are the rule in the New World. Mud nesting species in particular are limited in areas of high humidity, which causes the mud nests to crumble. Many cave, bank and cliff dwelling species of swallow nest in large colonies. Mud nests are constructed by both males and females, and amongst the tunnel diggers the excavation duties are shared as well. In historical times, the introduction of man-made stone structures such as barns and bridges, together with forest clearance, has led to an abundance of colony sites around the globe, significantly increasing the breeding ranges of some species. Birds living in large colonies typically have to contend with both ectoparasites and conspecific nest parasitism. Old males benefit most from coloniality, since they are able to maintain their own nests and benefit from frequent extra-pair copulations.
Pairs of mated swallows are monogamous, and pairs of non-migratory species often stay near their breeding area all year, though the nest site is defended most vigorously during the breeding season. Migratory species often return to the same breeding area each year, and may select the same nest site if they were previously successful in that location. First-year breeders generally select a nesting site close to where they were born and raised. The breeding of temperate species is seasonal, whereas that of subtropical or tropical species can either be continuous throughout the year or seasonal. Seasonal species in the subtropics or tropics are usually timed to coincide with the peaks in insect activity, which is usually the wet season, but some species like the white-bibbed swallow nest in the dry season to avoid flooding in their riverbank nesting habitat. All swallows will defend their nests from egg predators, although solitary species are more aggressive towards predators than colonial species. Overall the contribution of male swallows towards parental care is the highest of any passerine bird.The chicks of swallows hatch naked, generally with only a few tufts of down. The eyes are closed and do not fully open for up to 10 days. The feathers take a few days to begin to sprout, and the chicks are brooded by the parents until they are able to thermoregulate. On the whole they develop slowly compared to other passerine birds. The parents do not usually feed the chicks individual insects but instead a bolus of food comprising ten to a hundred insects. Regardless of whether the species has males that incubate or brood the chicks the males of all swallows and martins will help feed the chicks. It is difficult to judge when swallows and martins fledge, as they will be enticed out of the nest after three weeks by parents but frequently return to the nest afterwards in order to roost.
The eggs of swallows tend to be white, although those of some mud-nesters are speckled. The average clutch size is around four to five eggs in temperate areas and two to three eggs in the tropics. The incubation duties are shared in some species, in others the eggs are incubated solely by the females. Amongst the species where the male helps with incubation the contribution varies amongst species, with some species like the cliff swallow sharing the duties equally and the female doing most of the work in others. Amongst the barn swallows the male of the American subspecies helps (to a small extent) whereas the European subspecies does not. Even in species where the male does not incubate the eggs the male may sit on them when the female is away to reduce heat loss (this is different from incubation as that involves warming the eggs, not just stopping heat loss). Incubation stints last for 5–15 minutes and are followed by bursts of feeding activity. From laying, swallow eggs take between 10–21 days to hatch, with 14–18 days being more typical.