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Overview

Brief Summary

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

A medium-sized (5-6 inches) swallow, the Cliff Swallow is most easily identified by its dark wings, pale breast, and buff-brown rump. Other field marks include a squared-off tail, pale forehead, and black throat patch. Male and female Cliff Swallows are similar to one another in all seasons. The Cliff Swallow breeds across Alaska, Canada, and much of the United States outside of the desert southwest and southeast. In winter, this species migrates south to southern South America. Small numbers are sometimes seen in late fall in southern California and the Gulf Coast, but this species does not normally spend the winter in these areas. As this species’ name suggests, Cliff Swallows typically breed in areas where cliff faces provided a suitable location for nesting sites. More recently, this species has adapted to building nests on man-made structures, such as overpasses and tall buildings, a fact which has allowed Cliff Swallows to expand their range east and south into areas where cliff faces are less common. During the winter, this species is found in open grasslands, fields, and marshes. Cliff Swallows exclusively eat flying insects. As is the case with most swallow species, it is possible to observe Cliff Swallows feeding on insects while in flight. Birdwatchers in this species’ breeding range may want to pay special attention to bridges or the eaves of buildings, as a careful search of these structures may reveal a nesting colony. Cliff Swallows are primarily active during the day.

Threat Status: Least Concern

  • Brown, Charles R. and Mary B. Brown. 1995. Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/149
  • Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). The Internet Bird Collection. Lynx Edicions, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012. .
  • Peterson, Roger Tory. Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Print.
  • Petrochelidon pyrrhonota. Xeno-canto. Xeno-canto Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012. .
  • eBird Range Map - Cliff Swallow. eBird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, N.d. Web. 20 July 2012. .
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Distribution

occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

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Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends from western and central Alaska, northern Yukon, northern Mackenzie, Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba, Ontario, southern Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia south to Baja California and central Mexico, western Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, western Virginia, southeastern Pennsylvania, western Connecticut and northeastern Massachusetts (Brown and Brown 1995). Accidental records from coastal Siberia, southern Greenland, and the British Isles (Brown and Brown 1995). During the nonbreeding season, the range extends from from southern Brazil and possibly southeastern Paraguay south to southcentral Argentina, with several records as far south as Tierra del Fuego and Falkland Islands (Brown and Brown 1995), and occasionally north at least to Costa Rica.

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Physical Description

Size

Length: 14 cm

Weight: 22 grams

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Type Information

Type for Hirundo pyrrhonota pyrrhonota
Catalog Number: USNM 195055
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Birds
Sex/Stage: Male; Adult
Preparation: Skin: Whole
Collector(s): E. Preble
Year Collected: 1904
Locality: Fort Norman, Mackenzie, Northwest Territories, Canada, North America
  • Type: Oberholser. January 3, 1920. Canadian Field-Naturalist. 33 (5): 95.
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Comments: Cliff swallows inhabit open to semiwooded habitat, cliffs, canyons, and farm country, generally near meadows, marshes, and water. They build bottle-shaped mud nest in colonies on cliffs, under eaves of buildings, under bridges, and similar sites sheltered by an overhang. Many return to same nesting area in successive years, but colonies tend to switch nesting sites between seasons, evidently due to a buildup of insect parasites in the nests. Cliff swallow commonly repair and use old nests.

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Migration

Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Cliff swallows arrive in the southern United Staes in February or March. They reach the northern United States usually sometime in April (May in Alaska). Southward migration in the contiguous United States is mainly in August and early September.

Rare migrant in the West Indies (Raffaele 1983). Migrates through Costa Rica late August or early September to late October and early March to late May (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Uncommon and sporatic fall transient in Colombia, mainly early September to mid-October; fewer records of migrants in spring (April-May) (Hilty and Brown 1986). Present in South America mainly September-April (Ridgely and Tudor 1989).

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Trophic Strategy

Comments: Primarily insectivorous; feeds on beetles, flying ants, wasps, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, etc. Feeds often on small swarming insects. Sometimes eats berries (e.g., of junipers). Forages usually within 0.5 km of colony, but sometimes up to several km away.

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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: > 300

Comments: This species is represented by a large number of occurrences (subpopulations).

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Global Abundance

>1,000,000 individuals

Comments: Global population estimate is 89,000,000 birds (Rich et al. 2004). Breeding population is difficult to census accurately by transect methods because species concentrates in colony areas which may be occupied erratically from year to year. North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) estimated a relative abundance of 16.99 birds/survey route (n = 2066) from 1966 to 2004 throughout the North American survey area (Sauer et al. 2005a).

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General Ecology

Gregarious at all seasons. Periodically populations may decline drastically due to prolonged spring or summer rains and reduced food availability (Terres 1980). Parasitic swallow bug (Oeciacus vicarius) sometimes is abundant enough to reduce reproductive success in large colonies.

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Life History and Behavior

Life Expectancy

Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 11.8 years (wild) Observations: Annual adult survival has been estimated at 0.57 (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/). In the wild, these animals may live up to 11.8 years (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/homepage/longvrec.htm).
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Reproduction

Completely new nests of cliff swallows are built over a period of 3 to 27 days (often a week or two). Egg laying may occur as early as early April in Texas and California, early May in Nebraska and Idaho, late May in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and early June in Arizona. At higer elevations in the mountains, most egg laying probably occurs in June. In southern Arizona, most eggs are laid in July with the onset of the summer monsoon. The peak of laying in Nebraska is in late May and early June. Clutch size is 2-6 (usually 3-5). Incubation lasts an average of 13-14 days. Young are tended by both parents, can fly at 20-26 days, may return to nest for the first 2-3 days after fledging. In most populations, the young have fledged by the end of July or slightly later in the mountains and southern Arizona. Young are dependent on parents for food for 3-5 days after fledging, after which they may be fed occasionally for several additional days.

Cliff swallows usually produce one brood per year, a few have a second brood (Turner and Rose 1989; Gauthier and Thomas 1993a. Breeding activity within a colony is closely synchronized (Silver 1995). Prolonged rains or dry weather may reduce breeding success or postpone nesting.

Nesting occurs in colonies of up to 1,000+ pairs (average is a few hundred).

Researchers in Nebraska found that cliff swallow residents within a colony frequently lay eggs in neighboring nests. Sometimes cliff swallows move eggs laid in their own nest to a nearby nest (by carrying the egg in the bill).

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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Optimizing nest spacing aids survival: cliff swallow
 

Populations of cliff swallows survive in areas with limited breeding sites thanks to their colonial nesting behavior.

   
  "Also of importance in the evolution of colonial nesting are the spatial restrictions which narrowly specialized behavioral characteristics impose on a species. The specialization, whether inherent or traditional, which restricts nesting gulls and alcids to small islands so limits the number of usable breeding sites that procreation of the species depends on maximum utilization of the available space. A similar situation applies in the Cliff Swallow. The special environmental requirements for nesting in this bird include importantly a protected overhanging cliff, or cliff substitute, a source of mud of suitable quality for nest building, and an open foraging area. Sites containing all these essential features in close proximity were decidedly rare in North America before European settlement, and if each adequate site because of extensive territorial requirements could support only one pair of swallows, the dispersion would have been dangerously sparse for procreation and survival of the species. Any behavioral mutations which served to reduce the size of the defended territory around the nest and thus permit colonialism would, under such conditions, have survival value and be perpetuated." (Emlen 1952:196)

  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Emlen, John T., Jr. 1952. Social Behavior in Nesting Cliff Swallows. The Condor. 54(4): 177-199.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 3 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

NNNNNNNNNCTAATCTTCGGCGCATGAGCCGGAATAGTAGGCACCTCACTCAGTCTCCTAATTCGAGCAGAACTAGGCCAACCTGGAGCCCTTCTCGGAGATGACCAAATCTACAACGTAATCGTTACAGCTCACGCCTTTGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTCATACCAATTATGATCGGGGGATTCGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCACTAATAATTGGTGCGCCCGACATAGCATTCCCTCGAATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGATTACTCCCACCATCATTTCTACTGCTCCTAGCCTCCTCTACAGTAGAAGCTGGGGTAGGAACCGGCTGAACCGTATACCCACCCCTAGCTGGAAACCTAGCCCACGCCGGAGCCTCCGTAGACCTAGCTATCTTCTCCCTCCACCTAGCAGGAATCTCCTCAATCCTAGGTGCAATCAACTTTATCACCACAGCAATCAACATAAAACCCCCCGCCCTATCACAATACCAAACACCCCTGTTCGTCTGATCCGTACTAATCACTGCAGTACTACTTCTTCTTTCACTCCCCGTACTAGCTGCCGGTATTACTATACTCCTAACAGACCGCAACCTAAACACCACCTTCTTCGACCCAGCTGGAGGAGGAGACCCAGTACTTTATCAACACCTATTCTGATTCTTCGGCCATCCAGAAGTCTATATCCTAATCCTC
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

History
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
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