Photo: Laure Neish/Vireo

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Two kinds of brown-backed swallows nest in holes in dirt banks. The Rough-wing is the solitary one, not nesting in colonies like the Bank Swallow. It is usually seen singly or in small groups, even during migration, in rapid low flight over rivers or fields. The name "Rough-winged" comes from small serrations on the outermost wing feathers. The function of these is unknown, but they may produce sounds during courtship flights.
Conservation status Because it will nest in artificial sites, including road cuts and holes in bridges, may have increased with the spread of civilization.
Family Swallows
Habitat Near streams, lakes, river banks, also arroyos in dry country. Widespread in any kind of open country, but most commonly near water, nesting in vertical dirt banks (as along streambanks, river bluffs, gravel pits). May also nest along dry washes in arid country, but usually feeds over water, fields, or dense brush.
Two kinds of brown-backed swallows nest in holes in dirt banks. The Rough-wing is the solitary one, not nesting in colonies like the Bank Swallow. It is usually seen singly or in small groups, even during migration, in rapid low flight over rivers or fields. The name "Rough-winged" comes from small serrations on the outermost wing feathers. The function of these is unknown, but they may produce sounds during courtship flights.
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Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly in the air, patrolling over rivers, ponds, and fields in swift flight. Usually forages low. Often solitary in foraging, but may join concentrations of other swallows at good feeding areas.


Eggs

5-7, sometimes 4-8. White. Incubation probably by female, 12-16 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 19-21 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 19-21 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.

Diet

Insects. Feeds on a wide variety of flying insects, including many flies, wasps, winged ants, bees, true bugs, and beetles. Also eats some moths, caterpillars, mayflies, damselflies, spiders.


Nesting

Solitary in nesting; unlike Bank Swallow, does not form colonies, although several pairs may nest in favorable site. In courtship, male flies after female, spreading the white feathers under the base of his tail so that they are prominently displayed. Nest site is usually in burrow in vertical dirt bank; may be bank along running stream, or road cut or similar bank miles from water. Birds may dig tunnel themselves, 1-6' long, or may use old burrow of Bank Swallow, kingfisher, or ground squirrel. Sometimes in other kinds of cavities, such as drainpipe, culvert, crevice in bridge support, hole in side of building. Bulky nest at end of burrow made of twigs, weeds, bark fibers, lined with finer grasses, occasionally with fresh horse manure added.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Generally an early migrant in spring. In parts of the southwest it is absent mainly in late fall, reappearing in January or even late December.

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Migration

Generally an early migrant in spring. In parts of the southwest it is absent mainly in late fall, reappearing in January or even late December.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A low, unmusical br-r-ret, more drawn out than the call of the Bank Swallow and often doubled.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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