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Violet-green Swallow

Tachycineta thalassina ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: HIRUNDINIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

These aerial insectivores perform acrobatic stunts over lakes and streams high in the sky in search of flying insects. Violet-green Swallows can look dark at first, but their true colors come to life when sunlight illuminates their metallic green backs and iridescent purple rumps. They are a common sight in the West in spring and summer, but they vanish to Mexico and Central America for the winter. They can be distinguished from other swallows by the white patches on the sides of their rump and their white cheeks.

Keys to identification Help

Swallows
Swallows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Violet-green Swallows are small sleek birds with long pointed wings and slightly forked tails. Their wingtips extend beyond their short tail—especially noticeable when perched.

  • Color Pattern

    On first look, Violet-green Swallows appear dark above and crisp white below. In good light, the greenish-bronze back and iridescent violet rump come to life. All individuals have white bellies that wrap around to the upper side of the rump, creating "saddlebags." Males have white cheek patches while females and juveniles have dusky cheeks. Juveniles have grayish-brown backs and crowns.

  • Behavior

    Violet-green Swallows are graceful aerial acrobats that fly at various heights, often over water bodies, in search of flying insects. When not foraging Violet-green Swallows perch on wires or exposed tree branches. They are social songbirds and occur in groups with other swallows and swifts.

  • Habitat

    Violet-green Swallows breed in open woodlands including deciduous, evergreen, and mixed species woodlands, especially where old cavity-filled trees occur. They also frequent lakes and streams where they forage for flying insects.

Range Map Help

Violet-green Swallow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Violet-green Swallow

    Adult male
    • Wingtips extend beyond the tail
    • White cheek and belly
    • Tiny bill
    • Green cap and back
    • Violet rump
    • © Bob Gunderson, Rancho San Antonio, Los Altos, California, April 2001
  • Adult male

    Violet-green Swallow

    Adult male
    • Wingtips extend beyond the tail
    • White cheek and belly
    • Tiny bill
    • Green cap and back
    • Violet rump
    • © Stephen Parsons, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington, April 2011
  • Adult female

    Violet-green Swallow

    Adult female
    • Wingtips extend beyond the tail
    • Dusky cheek
    • Tiny bill
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, May 2012
  • Adult male

    Violet-green Swallow

    Adult male
    • Broad wings
    • White belly and cheek
    • White saddlebags (white wraps around the side of the rump)
    • © Van Truan, Pueblo, Colorado, May 2013
  • Immature female

    Violet-green Swallow

    Immature female
    • Short tail
    • Narrow wings
    • Dusky cheek
    • White saddlebags (white wraps around the side of the rump)
    • Brownish above
    • © Brian Sullivan/Macaulay Library, Toledo, Belize, November 2015
  • Adult male

    Violet-green Swallow

    Adult male
    • Wingtips extend beyond tail
    • White cheek and belly
    • Tiny bill
    • © Bob Gunderson, Los Altos, California, April 2011

Similar Species

Similar Species

The speed at which swallows pass by can make identification challenging, but the key is to focus on tail shape and length, facial patterns, and rump color. When perched, note that the wingtips of Tree Swallows reach the tail, while the wingtips of Violet-green Swallows extend beyond the tail, giving them a short-tailed look. Tree Swallows also have a bluish-green back and they lack the white patches on the sides of their rump that are distinctive on Violet-green Swallows. Tree Swallows also tend to soar more than the fluttery Violet-green Swallow. Juvenile Tree Swallows have a cleanly defined gray-brown and white face while juvenile Violet-green Swallows have a smudgy dusky face. Adult and juvenile Bank Swallows have longer, thinner tails. They also have a distinctive gray-brown breast band, gray-brown backs, and do not have white on the sides of the rump like Violet-green. Northern Rough-winged Swallows are brown above with a dusky throat unlike the white throat seen on Violet-green Swallows. Cliff Swallows have broader and rounder wings compared to a Violet-green Swallow. Cliff Swallows also have a pale rump patch on the top of their tails while Violet-greens have white on the sides of their rump. Barn Swallows wings are longer and more pointed that Violet-green Swallows. Adult Barn Swallows also have a long forked tail that distinguishes them from Violet-green Swallows. Juvenile Barn Swallows don’t have a long forked tail, but they have a solidly dark back (no white on the rump) and buffy bellies. Purple Martins are much larger than Violet-green Swallows with chunkier bodies and wings. Adult males are entirely dark above and below while Violet-greens have a white belly. Juvenile and female Purple Martins have a grayish belly, but they do not have any white on the rump like Violet-greens. Vaux's and Chimney swifts are easy to confuse with swallows at first—but notice their smaller, all-dark bodies, longer, narrower, more curved wings, and very stiff-winged flying style. Swifts in flight, in general look like flying cigars whereas swallows look chunkier and often spread their tails.

Backyard Tips

If you live near an open woodland or lake, Violet-green Swallows may nest in your yard, especially if you put up a nest box or leave standing dead trees on your property. Nest boxes can be placed on buildings, live trees, dead trees, or a pole 9–15 feet above the ground. Because Violet-green Swallows often like to nest in small groups, consider putting up more than one nest box at least 30 feet apart. Find out more about nest boxes on All About Birdhouses, where you'll find plans to build your own nest box for Violet-green Swallows.

Find This Bird

One of the best places to look for Violet-green Swallows is to head out to a river, pond, or lake early in the morning and keep your eyes to the sky. Watch for birds swooping and twittering over the water snatching up insects. They tend to be in groups from 10 to over 100 and they often hang out with other swifts and swallows. To pick one out of the crowd look for the white saddlebags on the sides of the rump and a clean white belly. It can be difficult to get a good look at flying Violet-green Swallows, but you might have an easier time following one with your binoculars if you spot one a little bit further away. That way the swallow won't zip out of your field of view as soon as it enters. They often perch on power lines and dead trees, so you’ll be able to get a better look at perched birds in those spots.

Get Involved

Provide nesting habitat for Violet-green Swallows by building a nest box. Learn more at NestWatch and start contributing valuable information about the breeding biology of Violet-green Swallows.

You Might Also Like

Read about a unique observation of a large group of Violet-green Swallows bathing in the Naturalist’s Notebook: Violet-Green Swallows, Living Bird, Summer 2009.

In California’s Oak Woodlands, 5 Species Divvy Up Habitat To Improve Nest Success, All About Birds, May 18, 2016.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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