CLIFF SWALLOW

CLIFF SWALLOW(Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)

The Cliff swallow, also called American cliff swallow, measures approximately 12 cm (5 in.) long, has dark blue-grey upper parts and creamish under parts, with a short square tail. There is a white forehead and the throat is dark red-brown. The rump is light beige. Sexes are similar but juveniles lack the white forehead and the dard red-brown throat.

Although the name of this swallow species refers to its habit of nesting along vertical surfaces in natural settings, it has well adapted to human-built structures that suit its preferences.

The scientific name ‘petrochelidon’ is ancient Greek meaning ‘rock’ and ‘swallow’, and ‘pyrrhonota’ refers to the ‘flame-colored’ back of the bird.

As with other members of the swallow family, this particular species feeds on insects caught on the fly.

The nest of the cliff swallow is made of mud mixed with the bird’s saliva. They also nest in colonies that may contain up to thousands of nests. However with the number of nests in a colony the risk of parasites increases. This bird species also practices some intra-parasitism, where females will lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The nest colonies are close to a source of mud, i.e. water.

The main distribution range of the cliff swallow is located in western North America. There’s even a festival at Mission San Juan Capistrano, in California, to celebrate the return of the swallows from their winter migration in Argentina. With the construction of infrastructure such as bridges and overpasses, this bird species extended its breeding range to the whole of North America except the northern Canadian forests and tundra. The Maritimes are at the northeast end of the bird’s current range.

There has been only one report of nesting cliff swallows on PEI in the last 20 years (as of 2012). If you observe any cliff swallow nest on the island, please report it to Nature PEI. There are also only occasional sightings of this bird on the island (spring, summer and fall), which is considered as ‘extirpated’ from PEI as per the Maritime Breeding Bird Atlas. The wintering grounds of the cliff swallow cover the northern half of South America except the Amazonia.

Cliff swallow - Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, QC - photo by Cephas
Cliff swallows at their nests – Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, QC – photo by Cephas
Cliff swallows collecting mud in a puddle - Prince Edward Point, ON - photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson
Cliff swallows collecting mud in a puddle – Prince Edward Point, ON – photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson