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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: HIRUNDINIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Busy flocks of Cliff Swallows often swarm around bridges and overpasses in summer, offering passers-by a chance to admire avian architecture and family life at once. Clusters of their intricate mud nests cling to vertical walls, and when a Cliff Swallow is home you can see its bright forehead glowing from the dim entrance. These common, sociable swallows are nearly always found in large groups, whether they’re chasing insects high above the ground, preening on perches, or dipping into a river for a bath.

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Keys to identification Help

Swallows
Swallows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These compact swallows have pointed, broad-based wings, a small head, and a medium-length, squared tail.

  • Color Pattern

    In poor light, Cliff Swallows look brownish with dark throats and white underparts. In good light you’ll see their metallic, dark-blue backs and pale, pumpkin-colored rumps. They have rich, brick-red faces and a bright buff-white forehead patch like a headlamp. Some juveniles show whitish throats in summer and fall.

  • Behavior

    Cliff Swallows zoom around in intricate aerial patterns to catch insects on the wing. When feeding in flocks with other species of swallows, they often stay higher in the air. They build mud nests in colonies on cliff ledges or under bridges, eaves, and culverts.

  • Habitat

    Cliff Swallows traditionally built their nests on vertical cliff faces. With the expansion of road infrastructure they have adopted many bridges, overpasses, and culverts as their colonial nesting sites. They feed in areas near and over water, frequently mixing with other species of swallows.

Range Map Help

Cliff Swallow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Cliff Swallow

    Adult
    • Small, stocky swallow
    • Squared tail
    • Tawny rump
    • White forehead contrasts with dark cap and chestnut throat
    • © Cameron Rognan, Arcata, California, May 2007
  • Adult

    Cliff Swallow

    Adult
    • Stocky and long-winged
    • Squared tail
    • White forehead and tawny rump distinctive in flight
    • © Sharon Watson, North Dakota, May 2011
  • Adult

    Cliff Swallow

    Adult
    • Stocky, short-tailed swallow
    • Dark gray above, paler below
    • White forehead contrasts with dark cap and chestnut-brown throat
    • © Cameron Rognan, Bishop, California, June 2005
  • Juvenile

    Cliff Swallow

    Juvenile
    • Stocky and short-tailed
    • Similar to adult but duller overall
    • © Bob Gunderson, Sierra Valley, Plumas County, California, June 2012
  • Adult

    Cliff Swallow

    Adult
    • Small, chunky swallow with short, squared tail
    • White forehead contrasts with dark crown and chestnut-brown throat
    • Tawny rump
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Palo Alto, California, April 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Barn Swallow

    Adult male
    • More elongated and slender than Cliff Swallow
    • Long, forked tail
    • Glossy blue/purple above, buffy orange below
    • Dark rufous forehead and throat
    • © Eddie Y, Flushing Meadows, Corona, Queens, New York, May 2011
  • Adult

    Cave Swallow

    Adult
    • Similar to Cliff Swallow
    • Pale tawny throat
    • Darker rufous/chestnut forehead
    • © Stephen Ramirez, San Marcos, Texas, July 2010

Similar Species

Barn Swallows are similarly colored but very different in size and shape, with long, forked tails and slimmer bodies overall. Northern Rough-winged Swallows lack the Cliff Swallow’s pale rump and dark throat. Cave Swallows have pale, buff-colored faces and throats. Their range is much more restricted to the Southwest than Cliff Swallows—but they are expanding into North America and are worth considering when you are watching a large group of Cliff Swallows. Swifts such as Chimney Swift and Vaux’s Swift are smaller than swallows, with narrower, more curved wings and much stiffer wingbeats. They are much more uniformly dark overall than Cliff Swallows.

Regional Differences

Most Cliff Swallows in North America have whitish foreheads; however, birds from the Mexican population (which extends into the southwest U.S.) have dark chestnut foreheads.

Find This Bird

One easy way to find Cliff Swallows is to look for their gourd-shaped mud nests clustered under horizontal overhangs—many a highway overpass is swarming with Cliff Swallows in summer. To find these birds while they’re out foraging, head to a lake, river, or wetland and seek out foraging flocks of swallows. Scan the swallows carefully, focusing on finding a square-tailed bird with a pale, pumpkin-colored rump and dark upperparts. Scan the upper levels of a foraging flock, as Cliff Swallows often forage higher than other species.