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Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows feed on insects and spend a large part of each day in the air catching flies, beetles, and mosquitoes. Their long, pointed wings give them great speed and maneuverability. Normally, swallows are not seen on the ground except when collecting mud for their nests. Most do not have musical voices but only twitter or squeak.

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows

The cliff swallow is 5 to 6 inches in length and is the only square-tailed swallow in California. In contrast, the barn swallow is distinguished by its long, deeply forked tail. The cliff swallow is also recognized by its pale,orange-brown rump, white forehead, dark rust-colored throat, and steel blue crown and back.

Distribution: The original nesting sites of cliff swallows were cliffs and walls of canyons. Structures, such as buildings, bridges, and overpasses, and agricultural activities have increased the number and distribution of suitable nesting sites, and cliff swallow populations have increased accordingly. In general, wherever irrigation water and buildings or other structures are found, suitable breeding conditions may exist.

Habitat: Cliff swallows spend the winter months in South America. In late winter and early spring, they begin a northward migration through Central America and Mexico. Arrival dates can vary greatly because of weather conditions. The first migrants usually appear in southern California by late February or early March. Two or three weeks later cliff swallows begin arriving in northern California. Cliff swallows migrate during the day and catch flying insects en route.

Egg Laying: Egg laying usually begins before the nest is completely finished. Each day one egg is laid until the clutch of three to four eggs is completed. In central California, egg laying generally occurs between late April and the end of May. In southern California nesting can begin during late March and in the extreme northeastern part of the state as late as June. Within a colony the date of egg laying varies because of the staggered arrival dates of the birds.

Site Selection: Cliff swallows arrive at nest colonies in successive waves. A definite homing tendency exists among adults that previously nested at a colony. These birds are the first to return, followed by adults who bred at other colonies in previous years and by young birds who have not yet bred. The younger birds include individuals not born at the selected colony.

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows

Management: Actions to solve problems with swallows should be started as soon as they are identified. Cliff swallows are colonial and the number of nesting birds can increase significantly from year to year. They are best managed by nest removal and exclusion techniques. There are no chemical toxicants registered for cliff swallow control, and shooting, trapping, or harming swallows is not permitted.

Life Cycle: Prior to and during nesting, the Cliff Swallow typically forages as part of a flock, which facilitates discovery of insect prey concentrations. Those “…nesting in larger colonies feed more efficiently and deliver more food to the offspring…” say the Browns. The bird also drinks as part of a group while skimming the water’s surface.


With the approach of mating, the cantankerous Cliff Swallow may fight for a nest site, especially in the more central and protected parts of a colony. It may peck and flog a competitor. It may also attack or defend a completed nest, doing battle at the entrance or within the nest itself. For good measure, it may chase a competitor in flight or knock it from a perch. It may raid an unattended nest, attacking, and sometimes even killing, nestlings.


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