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Swallows and Martins

North American Swallows And Martins

The most familiar swallow in North America is the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). This is a cosmopolitan species that also occurs under other common names in Eurasia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The barn swallow is an attractive bird, with a deeply forked tail, an iridescent purple back, and a brick-red breast. Barn swallows often nest in small colonies. The natural nesting habitat is cliffs and caves, where these birds build their cup-nests of mud bonded with grass. Barn swallows also commonly build their nests on the sides of buildings and bridges. The barn swallow breeds south of the tundra over most of North America and Mexico, and winters in South America.

The cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) looks rather similar to the barn swallow, but it does not have a forked tail, and it has a white patch on its forehead, a buff rump, and a white breast. The cliff swallow is a colonial nester, building its roofed, mud nests on cliffs, and also on structures made by humans, such as bridges, dams, and buildings. The cliff swallow breeds locally over a wide range, from the subarctic tundra to southern Mexico, and winters in South America.

The bank swallow (Riparia riparia) also breeds over much of North America south of the tundra, as well as in Eurasia. North American populations of bank swallows winter in South America. The bank swallow is a brown-backed species, with a brown band across the chest. The bank swallow nests in colonies, typically excavating tunnels for its nests in the earthen banks of rivers. This species also uses the sides of gravel pits as a place to nest.

The rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx ruficollis) is similarly marked to the bank swallow, but it lacks the brown breast-band, and has a darker breast. This is a non-colonial nester, which digs burrows in riverbanks, or sometimes nests in holes in cement bridges and other built structures. This species breeds widely south of the boreal forest of North America and into northern South America. The rough-winged swallow winters from the southern United States to South America.

The tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) has an iridescent, dark-blue or green back, and a white breast. This species breeds south of the low-arctic tundra to the northern states, and winters from the southern United States to Central America. The tree swallow nests in natural cavities in trees, or in cavities previously excavated and used by woodpeckers. This species will also take readily to nest boxes.

The violet-green swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) has a superficial resemblance to the tree swallow, with an iridescent violet-green back. This species breeds in Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) at Point Pelee National Park, Ontario. Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission. the western United States, and winters in northern Central America and Mexico. The violet-green swallow generally nests in cavities in trees or in crevices of cliffs.

The purple martin (Progne subis) is the largest swallow in North America. Male purple martins are a uniformly iridescent purple, while females are brown. The natural nesting sites of this colonial species are hollow cavities in trees, but purple martins also utilize multicelled nesting boxes provided by humans. This species breeds in an area from southern Canada to Mexico, and winters in South America.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSwallows and Martins - Biology Of Swallows And Martins, North American Swallows And Martins, Interactions With Humans