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California Swallows: a Guide to the Species (2024)

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swallows in californiaHave you ever encountered a pesky little swallow in California and wondered what species it was? Well, look no further – we’ve got all the information you need on these feathered creatures!

From their migration patterns to breeding habits, this guide will provide an in-depth look at the various types of swallows that can be found in California. With expert knowledge on everything from nesting behaviors to feeding habits, this article is sure to satisfy your curiosity about these beautiful birds.

Whether it’s cliff or tree swallows that have caught your eye (or made a mess of your property), get ready for some insightful facts about Californian Swallows! This article will provide expert knowledge on everything from nesting behaviors to feeding habits to satisfy your curiosity about these beautiful birds, including cliff swallows and tree swallows.

Key Takeaways

  • Eight species of swallows with unique nesting habits call California home.
  • From late March to May, swallows in California lay their eggs before migrating south for the winter months.
  • Each swallow species prefers specific nesting sites, whether cliffs, vertical banks near water, or under eaves.
  • Conservation efforts for these birds include installing nest boxes for barn swallows and securing permits for any necessary nest removal during breeding season.

Identification and Biology

Identification and Biology
You likely recognize the square tail and distinctive colors of Cliff Swallows when you see them nesting under eaves in your area. Nest failures leading to re-nesting occur frequently for these colonial breeders that lay clutches in late March to May before migrating south for the winter.

Distribution and Habitat

You’ll find these birds near water and structures where they can build their mud nests to raise their young before migrating south for the winter. Wildlife adapt to human changes by using buildings like the swallows that nest on mission walls.

Site Selection

Y’all look for mud sources and vertical surfaces to build your nests on. Species like Barn Swallows seek sheltered spots on human structures. Cliff Swallows congregate in large colonies under eaves and ledges. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest in cavities like riverbanks or culverts.

Tree Swallows occupy old woodpecker holes and nest boxes. Violet-greens use crevices in cliffs or trees. Each species has adapted nest site preferences that maximize reproductive success.

Nest Construction

How about you use mud and grasses to construct those hanging nests under roof eaves in a fanciful, artistic way? Each year your colony collectively engineers intricate mud nests to safely incubate eggs.

Despite predation risks, swallows persistently rebuild and maintain nests, exhibiting impressive architectural adaptations. By summer’s end, these seasonal structures fall abandoned, awaiting next year’s breeding visitors.

Egg Laying

After building their mud nests under eaves, barn swallows lay 3-4 eggs from late March to May. The off-white, spotted eggs warm beneath the mother bird, while the father gathers insects nearby. If nest failure strikes early, renesting ensures future generations will take wing over California.

Though protected by law, let’s revel in barn swallows swooping through spring’s renewal, their familiar forms gracing the skies with beauty. The barn swallow’s presence is a harbinger of warmer weather and a reminder that even the harshest winter gives way to rebirth.

As the birds build their nests, we welcome their return as a sign of nature’s resilience. Their familiar chirps and forked tails cutting graceful arcs through open skies inspire hope that the cycle of seasons marches steadily onward.

Nest Failures

You’ll want to renest if nest failures happen before the eggs hatch. Harsh weather or predators often doom first broods, but swallows persist. They’ll quickly rebuild sturdy mud nests on cliff faces or under eaves, then relayer eggs, ensuring the next generations survive.


Though protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, lawful techniques exist to remove Cliff Swallow nests or stop them from nesting on buildings. Permits must be acquired before eliminating nests during breeding season. However, exclusions utilizing netting or exterior modifications are legal any time.

Because cliff swallows are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, you’ll need to obtain permits before removing or excluding their nests during breeding season. Consult your state wildlife agency for specifics on permit regulations before undertaking nest removal or exclusion efforts.

Adhering to legal protections allows for the continued conservation of cliff swallows while addressing structural nesting issues.

Nest Removal

Okay friend, move quickly when taking down those mud nests before the angry birds come back!

  • Use plastic netting or block entry points.
  • Carefully remove nests after the young have flown away.
  • Adhere to conservation rules to respect the natural world.

Removing swallow nests requires care and patience. Safeguard the future while managing the present through thoughtful actions.


While direct nest removal isn’t always your best option, great exclusion options include netting, entrance blocking, metal projections, and surface changes. With cliff swallows protected under the Migratory Bird Act, urban nesting challenges call for thoughtful conservation efforts.

Avian exclusion offers nesting solutions that deter birds while respecting their natural behaviors. Avoid nest destruction through careful techniques that protect urban facades yet steer swallows to more suitable sites.

As aerial insectivores vital to ecosystems, cliff swallows merit thoughtful management amid human spaces. With knowledge and care, we can find solutions benefitting birds and buildings alike.

Other Methods

Though you’re feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place, don’t be ruffled by a lack of simple solutions because where there’s a will, there’s a way to manage these birds without plucking a feather.

  1. Install artificial nests to divert nesting.
  2. Apply harmless sticky substances during post-nesting.
  3. Use distraction tools and reflective deterrents.

With determination, you can find unique approaches that work for your situation without harming the swallows. Contact suppliers for alternative control materials and stay open to innovative tactics.

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow
You’re surely noticing the grayish-brown backs of bank swallows darting near waterways as you explore California’s diverse landscapes. These aerial acrobats nest in colonies in holes dug in vertical banks near water.

Nesting Habits – Dig burrows in sand or soil banks.

Diet – Flying insects like flies, bees, wasps, and ants.

Migration Routes – Winter in South America, migrating through Central America.

Conservation Status – Near threatened due to habitat loss.

Habitat Preferences – Open areas near water with vertical banks or cliffs.

Bank swallows time their breeding with peak insect activity, laying clutches in May or June. They’re similar to other swallows like northern rough-winged, purple martin, and violet-green but differ in their burrow nesting behavior.

Protecting suitable nesting banks is crucial for their future as development encroaches on their habitat. Appreciate these agile fliers gracing waterways as they swoop to snatch aerial meals.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow
You’d be shocked at how widespread the navy-blue-backed Barn Swallows are ‘cross the entire US of A! These little beauties just love buildin’ their mud nests on beams or rafters inside barns or other structures.

Come springtime, they’ll construct a cup-shaped nest to raise up to three broods.

After traveling thousands of miles up from South America, the male will start singin’ to attract a fine female. Once they pair up, she’ll lay four to seven eggs that’ll need incubatin’ for about two weeks.

Both parents take turns sitting on the nest and catching insects like flies mid-air to feed the hatchlings.

The little ones fledge in ’bout three weeks, ready to migrate down South again come fall. Before leaving, they’ll gather in huge flocks, letting their musical chirps echo ‘cross the fields. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot their deeply-forked tails and reddish-brown throats as they flutter overhead.

Though they return to the same site annually, these migratory birds spread their wings far and wide, gracing us with their aerial elegance.

Cave Swallow (Rare)

Cave Swallow (Rare)
The barn swallow gracefully sculpts mud nests under sheltering eaves. In contrast, you seek out cave swallows in rugged landscapes pocketed by caves, crevices, cliffs, and canyons. These gregarious birds congregate in small colonies, their chattering calls echoing off stony walls.

Unlike barn swallows ranging continent-wide, cave swallows occupy a limited niche, breeding in parts of west Texas, southern New Mexico and Arizona.

Watch them swoop and forage above arid shrublands, snapping up insects with ease. At breeding sites, both sexes craft gourd-shaped mud nests plastered to cave walls or crevices. Protecting their limited habitat is crucial for this species’ survival. Though urban sprawl threatens cliff swallow colonies, development scarcely infringes on the remote redoubts favored by cave swallows.

Still, even subtle changes in insect populations could disrupt the food sources they depend on. Help conserve their breeding and foraging grounds so future generations can delight in these aerial artists.

Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallow
With friendly chatter, they create homes along rugged cliffs. Like diligent architects, Cliff Swallows gather balls of mud and straw in their tiny beaks, expertly sculpting the materials into bottle-shaped nests.

A welcome balm to humanity’s yearning for community, hundreds unite in defiant colonies, despite the unstable proclivities of their chosen constructions.

Constant companions flit to and fro, scouring the skies for insects to satisfy hungry, open mouths within each nest. Though challenged by scarce supplies and extreme weather, Cliff Swallows valiantly nurture the next generation.

With conservation efforts, these harbingers of connections found, collaborations built, and commitments kept will continue gracing the cliffs with their industrious murmurations. As the subdued chorus of the colony penetrates the air, you find yourself lulled by a sense of belonging – even from afar, their song whispers that you’re never alone.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
The cheerful Cliff Swallows depart for warmer climates, the drab yet charming Northern Rough-winged Swallows quietly return to make their nests. These gentle flyers glide low over streams and ponds, snatching insects with their large gaping mouths.

Though less social than their mud-building cousins, they find belonging among the reeds near slow moving waters.

To thrive, these swallows require three things: ample insects, suitable nesting cavities, and your welcoming spirit.

Their nurturing ways are a balm to the soul as they raise multiple broods in a hidden niche. Do not disturb their peaceful reverie but delight as they swoop and soar on their insect hunt, dancing lightly on the breeze.

Soon they too must leave but you’ll await their return, when waterways come alive with flashing wings skimming the mirrored surface as life awakens once more.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin
Y’all’d love seein’ these big, flashy birds swoopin’ around snatchin’ up bugs on the wing! Purple Martins with their sleek, deep purple feathers are the largest swallow in North America. They nest in colonies, preferrin’ artificial housing like apartment-style boxes and gourds – so put some up if you want these aerial acrobats nearby.

Come spring, they’ll be returning from winterin’ grounds in South America, ready to breed. Males will sing, flutter and dive to impress the gals. After pairing up, the female builds a nest cup usin’ grasses and twigs while her partner gathers mud for the outer walls.

Together they’ll raise two broods of around six young’uns each before migratin’ south again in the fall.

Providing suitable nest sites and controlling predators helps these stunning swallows thrive. So give Purple Martins a place to call home and enjoy the show! They’re a flash of color to brighten up your day.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow
Y’all find these tree swallows spreadin’ ‘cross meadows an’ near water as they forage fer insects. While they breed all over North America, their favored habitat is open areas near still water sources.

  • Nest in tree cavities or nest boxes near water
  • Arrive early spring to establish nest sites
  • Lay 5-7 eggs in clutch, often double brood
  • Feed on flying insects like flies, bees, beetles
  • Migrate south to Gulf States, Mexico for winter
  • Blue-green backs and clean white undersides
  • Attracted to nest boxes, important for conservation
  • Suffer from pesticides and loss of wetlands habitat

These acrobatic insect catchers grace our fields an’ forests come springtime. Protecting their meadow an’ wetland homes lets ’em continue their aerial dances fer generations. With help from folks providin’ nest boxes an’ habitat, they’ll keep returnin’ each year to wow us with their swiftness on the wing.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow
See the way its metallic green back shimmers when it darts out over the meadow! The violet-green swallow is a jewel of the western skies. These aerial acrobats breed in open woodlands and mountain meadows. Their mud nests cling to cliff faces and beneath overhangs.

From British Columbia to New Mexico, range expansion follows habitat loss. Yet human structures attract them too.

These songbirds symbolize spring’s return. With conservation efforts, their shimmering flight still graces summer days. The sight brings joy to all who pause and look up. Even as the swallows migrate south, we feel hope.

Our shared habitats allow us to appreciate nature’s cycles together. There’s intimacy in this understanding that transcends words alone.


California is home to eight swallow species, each with their own unique behaviors, migration patterns, and breeding habits. From the bank swallow that nests near water to the violet-green swallow that inhabits western North America, these birds have been a mainstay in the California landscape for centuries.

Their impressive display of flight, homing tendencies, and the annual return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano on March 19 have made them symbols of determination and resilience.

As we look to the skies, the fluttering of swallows in California evokes a sense of awe and admiration. Their presence is a reminder that nature’s beauty and complexity is just beyond our grasp, and that the same is true of our own lives.

Avatar for Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh is a passionate bird enthusiast and author with a deep love for avian creatures. With years of experience studying and observing birds in their natural habitats, Mutasim has developed a profound understanding of their behavior, habitats, and conservation. Through his writings, Mutasim aims to inspire others to appreciate and protect the beautiful world of birds.