Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

The gregarious Cliff Swallow nests in large colonies on buildings, cliffs, and under bridges. The gourd-shaped mud nests can number up to several hundred or thousand in a single location.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • When a Cliff Swallow has had a hard time finding food, it will watch its neighbors in the nesting colony and follow one to food when it leaves. Although sharing of information about food at the colony seems unintentional, when a swallow finds food away from the colony during poor weather conditions it may give a specific call that alerts other Cliff Swallows that food is available. By alerting other swallows to a large insect swarm an individual may ensure that the swarm is tracked and that it can follow the swarm effectively.
  • Although the Cliff Swallow can nest solitarily, it usually nests in colonies. Colonies tend to be small in the East, but further west they can number up to 3,700 nests in one spot.
  • Within a Cliff Swallow colony some swallows lay eggs in another swallow's nest. Sometimes the swallow may lay eggs in its own nest and then carry one of its eggs in its bill and put it in another female's nest.
  • When young Cliff Swallows leave their nests they congregate in large groups called creches. A pair of swallows can find its own young in the creche primarily by voice. Cliff Swallows have one of the most variable juvenal plumages, and the distinctive facial markings may help the parents recognize their chicks by sight too.


Adult Description

  • Small, long-winged stocky songbird.
  • Small bill.
  • Wings long and pointed.
  • Throat dark.
  • Tail square.
  • Rump pale.

Immature Description

Juvenile looks similar to adult, but has brown, not blue-black, on the crown and back, and variable dark or pale throat and forehead. 
Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Hirundinidae
Genus: Petrochelidon
Species: Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
  • Petrochelidon pyrrhonota hypopolia
  • Petrochelidon pyrrhonota minima
  • Petrochelidon pyrrhonota pyrrhonota
  • Petrochelidon pyrrhonota tachina
Song a thin squeaking twitter. Call a soft "chur."

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Length Range: 14 cm (5.5 in)
  • Weight: 23 g (0.8 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Gray, Buff, Sheen or Iridescence
  • Underparts: White with some red-brown streaking.
  • Upperparts: Blue with white stripes and orange-brown rump.
  • Back Pattern: Striped or streaked
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: All-purpose
  • Eye Color: Variable shades of dark brown, from maroon-brown to brown-black.
  • Head Pattern: Capped, Unique pattern
  • Crown Color: Blue
  • Forehead Color: White
  • Nape Color: Blue
  • Throat Color: Red-brown with black spot.
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Soars on thermals and updrafts., Swift graceful flight with slow deep wing beats.
  • Wingspan Range: 30 cm (12 in)
  • Wing Shape: Tapered-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Squared Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Solid
  • Upper Tail: Black
  • Under Tail: Black
  • Leg Color: Gray
  • Breeding Location: Grassland with scattered trees, Rocky cliffs
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous, Large colonies
  • Breeding Population: Expanding
  • Egg Color: Creamy white to light pink marked with brown
  • Number of Eggs: 3 - 6
  • Incubation Days: 14 - 16
  • Egg Incubator: Both sexes
  • Nest Material: Pellets of clay or mud lined with grasses, down, and feathers.
  • Migration: Migratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Naked and helpless.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Hirondelle front blanc (French)
  • Distinguished from all other swallow species, except Cave Swallow, by its pale orange rump and square tail.
  • Cave Swallow is similar, but usually has chestnut forehead and light throat.

Conservation Status

Extreme coloniality makes population monitoring difficult and causes large variations in an area over time. Populations appear to be increasing.


Sources used to Construct this Page:

Breeds in a variety of habitats with open foraging areas and cliffs or buildings for nesting. Avoids heavy forest, desert, or high mountains.
  • Brown, C. R., and M. B. Brown. 1995. Cliff Swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota). In The Birds of North America, No. 149 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Flying insects.
Catches insects in flight, often high above ground.

Adult Standard Variant

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Mexican Variant

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All photos 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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