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Getting to Know the Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallow at the Palo Alto Baylands

More than once, I’ve gone fishing and have almost immediately said, “Great, the fish will be biting!” I’ve had people quizzically ask, “How do you know that? You haven’t even gotten your hook wet.” My reply has been, “Look at the swallows.”

What I’m most often talking about are the cliff swallows, though barn swallows have the same traits. Swallows are small birds, usually not much more than 5 inches long.

These little birds eat insects while in flight. The flight is somewhat erratic, but graceful, as they dart after flying insects. It is this trait that tells me that the fish are going to be biting.

You see since swallows eat insects while in flight, they normally fly where the insects are. If they are skimming low, only a few inches over the water, that means that the insects are flying close to the surface of the water. That attracts the fish since the insects are close enough that the fish can get to them. The fish will often respond in a feeding frenzy, which means that they’ll be biting.

Conversely, if the swallows are flying high, the fishing is likely to be hit or miss. There usually aren’t enough insects close enough to the water to initiate a feeding frenzy in the fish.

Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) feed on many insects, including beetles, mosquitoes, flies, flying grasshoppers, bees, wasps, mayflies, salmon flies, flying ants, and so forth.

This kind of swallow builds a mud nest, usually on the sides of natural cliff faces, hence the name. They prefer vertical surfaces for the nest. They will often build nests under the overhangs on bridges because it is vertical. For whatever reason, road departments routinely destroy the nests and complain about the birds, though they actually do no damage to the bridge and are helpful in keeping the insect numbers in check. Occasionally, cliff swallows will even build nests on the sides of barns or buildings, under the eaves, much like barn swallows do.

Cliff swallows lay 3-6 small light pink eggs and both parents incubate them. About 2 weeks later, the eggs hatch. Both parents feed the chicks and about 3 weeks after hatching, the fledglings leave the nest.

This bird is very widespread in the US, Canada, and Mexico, though it doesn’t occur in the extreme southeast US. It breeds over the western part of its range, as far south as southern Mexico and as far north as Alaska and some parts of northwestern Canada.

The population of cliff swallows is increasing, partly because of the already mentioned bridges. It is especially plentiful where there are vertical cliff faces near water, but the bird is found in valleys, mountains, open land, deserts, meadows, fields, and prairies. It is also found in forests, as long as the forest isn’t too dense so the birds have plenty of room to fly around.

Barn swallows and tree swallows are quite similar, except that the coloration is a little different. Cliff swallows have a metallic blue back, white or pale belly, reddish-brown patches on the rump, and reddish-brown patches on the cheeks. Most of the top of the head is dark, but there is a white area on the forehead. It is easy to tell the difference between a cliff swallow and a barn swallow when they are in flight because a barn swallow’s belly is reddish-brown rather than white.

These are pretty little birds and they do quite a number on insects.

  • To your knowledge, have you ever seen a cliff swallow?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Do you think that this is a pretty bird?

    • Yes
    • No

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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7 Comments

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  1. Cliff swallows are one of the most social birds in North America. They all live together in large colonies.” The colonies are a natural survival strategy. … They’re always close to water because the swallows build their nests from globs of mud they collect by the beak full.

    • It is amazing what a person can learn just by watching them. At home, I can even tell when the humidity is dropping by watching the swallows. When humidity is high, insects fly close to the ground. When it drops, insects fly higher above the ground. Watching the swallows tells you how far above the ground the insects are, which tells you if the humidity is high or low.

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