cliff swallowThere are approximately 83 species of swallows in the world. The Cliff Swallow also known as the American Cliff Swallow, are just one of the many types of swallows you might see in North America, South America, and Mexico. Cliff Swallows are migratory birds that migrate to South America during the winter months in North America.  Cliff Swallows are a protected bird species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  While they are there, you can see them congregating around marshes, grasslands, farmlands, even outskirts of towns. Although they can nest solitarily, they most always nest in colonies. A single colony of Cliff Swallows can range from a few nests to thousands of nests. It’s a sight to be seen for sure.

The Cliff Swallows population has increased over the years, but they are still more abundant in the West then in the East. It’s not surprising to see their colonies on every bridge, culvert, or overpass out west. The numbers in the East are increasing, but have yet to reach the same amount as in the West.

If you’re out bird-watching, you should be able to identify a Cliff Swallow from other swallows with a little research of them. The Cliff Swallow is a short and stocky bird, which has long wings, with a pumpkin/tawny colored rump, squared off tail, and a white forehead that sticks out against a dark/black cap and chestnut colored throat. They are known to be distinctive in flight. The juvenile swallows are brown on top, buff or beige colored below, with various numbers of white spots on their heads and throats.

Just like when they are nesting, Cliff Swallows fly in groups of other swallows. Sometimes these groups can be a few as two birds to over 1000 in one group. Again, they are very social creatures, whether they are eating, foraging, roosting, bathing, etc. Cliff Swallows are very rarely found by themselves. Often times, when they are nesting and laying their eggs, Cliff Swallows may very well lay their eggs in another’s nest without hesitation.

While each swallow finds a mate with which they raise they’re young, but they do not associate with each other when away from the nest. Both the males and females of the species mate with others outside of the pairing.

When young Cliff Swallows are born, both parents take care of them. The adults each bring food to the nest to feed and they also share in the hatching duties. The female will lay sometimes 4-5 eggs or 3-6 eggs. The eggs are white to pale pinkish, spotted with brown. Incubation period is 14-16 days. Their young will leave the nest around 20-23 days after hatching. When young Cliff Swallows leave the nest, they can be found congregating in bigger groups known as creches. In these creches, the adult swallows can easily identify their young mostly by the sound of their voice. Unique facial marks are also a way of identifying their young. What is called juvenile plumage is different with every young Cliff Swallow.

In building the nest, the male and female will work together to make it. These mud nests are often found in freeway underpasses, culverts, sides of cliffs, and bridges. Though they can be found on buildings too. The nest is created with mud pellets, the birds will pick up some mud with their beaks, and with a shake of their heads turn it into a mud pellet which they will use to create a gourd shaped mud nest. Most Cliff Swallow nests are made up of anywhere from 900-1200 mud pellets, and lined with grass and feathers.

When Cliff Swallows go looking for food, they fly around in patterns catching insects on their wings. Basically, they eat while flying, but will land on higher elevations to do so as well. Their favorite treats are swarming insects as well as flies, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, and more. If you go out looking for swallows while they are foraging be sure to look higher as they like to feed at higher elevations then some species of birds. Cliff Swallows go to rivers, lakes, wetland, and wasps. If they are our foraging and find that food is scarce, they will warn their colony and be on the lookout for swarms of insects. When they find this new source, they will inform the colony where to find some food.

The damage caused by a six ounce bird like the Cliff Swallow is moderate. Other than their droppings and the possibility of insects in their nests, they really do not cause much damage. Just be careful where you step and such when you are in their area, as you might find yourself stepping in droppings you weren’t ready for. The only other type of damage they may do is build a mud nest on your barn, or house, which can cause insects to seek out your home just to be pesky. They are not known for structural damage in the sense that woodpeckers are.

While there are over 80 species of swallows including; Barn Swallows, Red-Tail Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Northern Rough-Winged Swallows and more, these little, commonly social birds a sight to observe in the summer if you’re in North America. Their populations continue to grow every year. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to see one of their gourd-shaped mud nests under an overpass, or on a bridge sometime, and be able to recognize them as they fly above you searching for food.