The Northern Rough-winged Swallow’s breeding range includes virtually all of the U.S. and portions of southern Canada, though it is generally uncommon due to its nesting habitat requirements of vertical banks. Road cuts, gravel pits, stream banks, and railroad embankments can all provide suitable nesting habitat. Studies of Northern Rough-winged Swallow nesting ecology have differed over whether they dig their own burrows or not. Using existing burrows dug by other birds or mammals appears to be more common.
Young Northern Rough-winged Swallows can fly the first time they leave their burrow, though they are not very good at it. Once they leave the burrow they do to return to it. Because burrows are in short supply, many birds may end up not nesting each year.
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Description of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow has brown upperparts, and pale underparts with a grayish to buffy throat. The tail is short and square.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have rusty colored wing bars.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows inhabit lakes, streams and rivers, and canyons.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows primarily eat insects.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows forage by capturing prey in flight using their open mouth.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows breed from southern Canada south to Central America. They winter from the southernmost U.S. south to Central America. The population is stable.
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is named for the stiff, comb-like leading edges of its outer primaries.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows are solitary nesters, unlike Bank Swallows, which generally nest in large numbers at a suitable location.
The typical song consists of a series of rough notes.
- Purple Martins are considerably larger, and Bank Swallows have a dark, well defined breast band.
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow’s nest is bulky mass of twigs, straw, grass, leaves, and mud placed at the end of a burrow within the side of a cliff or sandy bank.
Number: Usually lay 4-7 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 16 days and fledge at about 18-22 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for another several days.
Bent Life History of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Northern Rough-winged Swallow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
STELGIDOPTERYX RUFICOLLIS SERRIPENNIS Audubon
The rough-winged swallow was discovered by John James Audubon in Louisiana, but the description of the bird in his “Ornithological Biography” is based rather on specimens collected many years later at Charleston, S. C., which city is, therefore, the type locality. Audubon’s (1838) description of his first meeting with this swallow is as follows:
On the afternoon of the 20th of October 1819, I was walking along the shores of a forest-margined lake, a few miles from Bayou Sara, in pursuit of some ibises, when I observed a flock of small Swallows bearing so great a resemblance to our common Sand Martin, that I at first paid little attention to them. The Ibises proving too wild to be approached, I relinquished the pursuit, and being fatigued by a long day’s exertion, I leaned against a tree, and gazed on the Swallows, wishing that I could travel with as much ease and rapidity as they, and thus return to my family as readily as they could to their winter quarters. How it happened I cannot now recollect, but I thought of shooting some of them, perhaps to see how expert I might prove on other occasions. Off went a shot, and down came one of the birds, which my dog brought to me between his Ups. Another, a third, a fourth, and at last a fifth were procured. The ever continuing desire of comparing one bird with another led me to take them up. I thought them rather large, and therefore placed them in my bag, and proceeded slowly toward the plantation of William Perry, Esq., with whom I had for a time taken up my residence.
The naturalist examined his specimens carefully and saw that they were different birds from the sand martin, or bank swallow, but he continues. “At this time my observations went no further.”
Then, about two years ago, my friend the Rev. John Bachman, sent me four Swallow’s eggs accompanied with a letter, in which was the following notice: ‘Two pairs of Swallows resembling the Sand Martin, have built their nests for two years in succession in the walls of an unfinished brick house at Charleston, in the holes where the scaffolding had been placed. It is believed here that there are two species of these birds.’ * * * “I have now in my possession one pair of these Swallows procured by myself in South Carolina during my last visit to that State.”
The roughwing enjoys a very extended range in the Western Hemisphere. Essentially a bird of the Austral Zone, it does not hesitate to establish itself in mountainous country thousands of feet above sea level. According to Miller (1930) the bird breeds in the heart of the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, at about 2,000 feet; in western North Carolina Brewster (1886) found it up to 2,500 feet. James B. Dixon (MS.) says that in California it breeds from sea level up to 6,500 feet. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) report specimens collected at Red Rock P. 0., Calif., at an elevation of 5,300 feet; also, birds observed at Petes Valley, 4,500 feet; Secret~ Valley, 4,500 feet; and Jones, ~,400 feet.
This bird, also locally known as the sand, or gully, martin, is rather solitary in habits and usually does not congregate during the breeding season, as does its near relative the bank swallow. However, as Dawson (1923) says, “favorable conditions may attract several pairs to a given spot, as a gravel pit, but when together they are little given to community functions.”
Courtship: Grinnell and Storer (1924) write: “From time to time the males were seen in pursuit of the females and, while so engaged, to make rather striking use of their seemingly plain garb. They would spread the long white feathers (under tail coverts) at the lower base of the tail until they curled up along either side of the otherwise brownish tail. The effect produced was of white outer tail feathers, such as those of the junco or pipit. Males can by means of this trick be distinguished from the females at a distance of fully 50 yards. An examination of specimens in hand reveals the fact that the under tail coverts of the males are broader and longer than those of the females.”
Nesting: Burrows, excavated in precipitous banks of clay, sand, or gravel by the birds themselves, are the usual nesting sites of the roughwing. The length of the burrow depends, as H. H. Bailey (1913) says, “much on the character of the soil in which it is started. Weather conditions also make a moist or hard soil for them to work in.” Minimum depth of burrow is about 9 inches; and, in these shallow excavations, the nest can be sometimes seen from the outside. The greater number of tunnels, however, are long enough to keep the nest from view and protect it from driving rains. Under ideal working conditions, tunnels 4 and 5 feet long are often excavated, sometimes reaching even a distance of 6 feet.
Bailey further says: “The height of the nesting cavity in the bank also varies greatly, the nature of the soil strata affecting the drilling of the hole, which is made by the birds using their feet to scratch with, and push the dirt backward out of the tunnel. Unlike the kingfisher, their beaks play a secondary part in the drilling of their home, so they usually select a place in the soft strata where the roof will be the under side of a hard strata of soil, and so eliminate the ~7 chances of a cave-in.
Dawson (1923) writes that “in open country, where the cover is scarce but the food supply attractive” he found them nesting “along irrigating ditches with banks not over two feet high.” Weydemeyer (1933) found nests in Montana in banks 1 to 50 feet up.
This swallow is an excellent example of a species that can readily adapt itself to conditions and utilize any kind of cavity for the reception of its nest. It builds in holes in masonry, sides of wooden buildings, adobe walls, quarries and caves; crannies and ledges under bridges, culverts, and wharfs; and gutters, drainpipes, and sewerpipes. Deserted burrows of the kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) also are frequently used, and in the West holes of ground squirrels and other small mammals. According to Tyler (1913), these holes are thoroughly renovated before occupancy “as is evidenced by the small mounds of dust, leaves and trash that are to be seen below the entrances to occupied cavities.”
A nesting site near the village of Mount Pleasant, S. C., used occasionally by rough-winged swallows was in the end of a hole in a bank of burnt oystershell: location of an antebellum lime kiln facing Copahee Sound. A round piece of wood had been buried in the lime, and when it decayed it left a tunnel 3 inches wide and several feet deep. The late Arthur T. Wayne first showed it to me. He related that, on one occasion, upon his approach, the bird left the hole and was immediately pursued closely by a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter velox). It eluded its pursuer, however, and dived back into the hole, where it remained.
Howell (1924) writes: “A most remarkable site selected by one or more pairs of these birds for their nest was on a buttress beneath the deck of a transfer steamboat which made daily trips on the Tennessee River from Guntersville to Hobbs Island, a distance of 24 miles, leaving at 10 A. M. and returning at 6:00 pm. The birds, of course, followed the boat all the way to feed their young. A nest examined on the boat June 19, 1913, contained young.”
Hollow trees, it seems, are rarely used, but Eifrig (1919) says: “June 10, 1915, I saw a pair * * nesting in a dead cottonwood on the top of a dune at Millers. * * * The female looked out of the hole and the male perched as close by as he could.” Observers agree that the entrance hole of the roughwing’s tunnel differs from that of the bank swallow; S. F. Rathbun (MS.) says: “Quickly I detected the difference that existed in the shape of the entrance of the nesting tunnel used by the rough-winged swallow, by contrast with that of the bank swallow; for in the case of the former the shape of the entrance was elliptical, sometimes much so; it was larger and appeared carelessly made. But the bank swallow would make the entrance more circular, especially if the digging was easy; it was decidedly smaller, neater in its outline. And a person could readily see these differences even when some distance from the bank.”
Most of the birds that nest in cavities, tunnels, or crevices build either no nest at all or one of indifferent construction; the roughwinged swallow is no exception. S. S. Dickey’s (MS.) description of the nests as “loose, crude foundations” is a good one.
The bulk of the nest depends largely on the size of the cavity that holds it. Nests I have taken from sand banks along the South Carolina coast are 11/2 to 13,4 inches thick and are composed of grasses and rootlets.
A nest collected by J. F. Freeman (MS.) from a timber under a wharf, where there was plenty of room, is a rather bulky affair, built on a foundation of large chips and pieces of bark deposited during construction of the wharf. The nest proper is made of grasses and a few leaves of live oak (Quercus virginiana) and is lined with fine grasses. The distance from the top of the nest to the beam is 5 inches.
According to locality various materials are used, as grasses, pine needles, straw, weeds, roots, and, as Dickey (MS.) says, “shells of chicken eggs and now and then bud scales, panicles, seed tops, petals of such flowers as dogwood (Cyornus florida), Carices, and Juncus. Into their composition go pieces of deciduous leaves and petioles, notably those of the black willow (Salia nigra) and heartleaf willow (Salir cordata). A number of nests curiously contained moist horse dung; we wonder why. Perhaps the vile smell tends to ward off vermin” R. F. Mason, Jr. (MS.), reports the wide use of holly leaves in Maryland. In coastal Virginia H. H. Bailey says that seaweed is largely used in nest construction.
In Florida, according to Howell (1932), nests are made of dried rootlets, grass, weed stems, and a few dried beans and are lined with dried or partly burnt grass.
Dickey (MS.) writes: “Curiously, the parents supply broods daily with beds of fresh green leaves of the common locust (Rolinia pseudoacacia). Soiled leaves are removed, with the dung.”
A departure from the usual type of nest construction is described by Goss (1886), who says: “Nest in holes in banks of streams, constructed of the same material as the Barn Swallow.” He describes the nest of the latter bird as “constructed of layers of mud and grasses, and lined with fine grasses and downy feathers.”
“In the vicinity of Fortine, Mont.,” says Weydemeyer (1933), “I have been able to determine the stage of nesting, at some time during the season, shown by thirty-four nests of the Rough-winged Swallow. * * * ~ give below the range of dates, for different stages of nesting, which these records show. Nest under construction: May 8, 1931, to June 15, 1929. Eggs (seven nests), June 14, 1928, to July 6, 1923.”
Eggs: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The rough-winged swallow lays anywhere from four to eight eggs to a set, but the set usually consists of six or seven eggs; thus the sets will average larger than those laid by the bank swallow. They are more elongated, as a rule, than the eggs of other swallows, usually elliptical-ovate. They are somewhat glossy, pure white, and unmarked. The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.3 by 13.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.6 by 14.7, 17.3 by 15.0, 16.5 by 12.7, and 17.8 by 12.2 millimeters.]
Young: A. F. Skutch (MS.) says that the female incubates the eggs for 16 days, while Dickey (MS.) gives 12 days. Apparently the male occasionally helps his mate with incubation duties, and Blake (1907) mentions a nest under his observation in Vermont where the birds took turns at sitting on the eggs.
Dickey (MS.) says: “The young at first are mere weak infants, gray and yellow, with the blood vessels and organs showing somewhat through their skins. They are coated with streaks of gray down. They develop rapidly. Within one week they assume somewhat the aspect and plumage of the adults. When they are ready to leave the nest, at the lapse of 12 days, they are pale brown but cannot well be differentiated from the adults while on the wing. I went to the trouble to collect and examine young just out of the nests. Superficially their forms seemed more like bank swallows than like their adult parents.”
Skutch (MS.) continues: “When 13 days old the nestlings were well feathered, but they remained in the burrow a full week longer, gaining strength to fly.” Thus, he considers the nestling period to be 20 or 21 days. Weydemeyer (1933), out of a total of 3~4 nests under observation, gives the following dates of young in nest: June 8, 1921, to July 9, 1928. In nine other nests, the young left the nest by July 22, 1931, to July 29, 1930.
The roughwing raises one brood during the season.
Plumages: At the time of leaving the nest the young birds are similar to their parents in size, feathering, and length of wing and tail, but the first primary lacks the roughness of the adult feather; indeed, it is probable that nearly a year passes before the young birds acquire this saw edge that gives them their name. Also, the plumage is tinged with rufous or cinnamon, especially on the throat and upper breast; the wing coverts and tertials are margined with the same ruddy tint.
Dwight (1900) says: “First winter plumage acquired by a complete postjuvenal moult after the birds have migrated southward in September, or very likely while they move leisurely along in flocks.”
The first nuptial plumage is apparently acquired by wear. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt after they have migrated southward, mainly in September or later. The sexes are alike in all plumages.
Food: Howell (1924) says: “The food of the rough-winged swallow consists principally of insects, with a few spiders. Flies composed nearly one-third (32.89 per cent) of the total. Ants and other Hymenoptera are extensively eaten, and bugs to a lesser extent. Beetles amounted to nearly 15 per cent of the food and included the cotton-boll weevil, alfalfa weevil, rice weevils and flea beetles. A few moths, caterpillars, dragonflies, Mayflies, and an occasional grasshopper make up the remainder of this bird’s food.”
Behavior: In the field the roughwing appears as a sober-colored little bird, plain grayish brown above and lighter below. At a distance it can easily be confused with the bank swallow, but when the latter bird sweeps over the observer the breast band is readily detected. If the two birds are seen together, the larger size of serripennis and its more brownish appearance are at once apparent.
Lynds Jones (1912) says: “The more deliberate flight of the Rough Wing as compared with the Bank was always noticeable. The flight also tended to be more straight-away, with fewer abrupt turnings. The Rough-Wing gives one the feeling of great reserves of energy.”
Theed Pearse (MS.) mentions that the “flight differs from other species of swallow, stroke of wing being higher.”
‘When its nest is approached the bird glides out and is soon joined by its mate; then the two usually wheel back and forth at a short distance away. If bare branches or telegraph wires happen to be near at hand the birds will perch upon them and wait for the intruder to go.
Dickey (MS.) writes that the “parent, not seemingly uneasy, tended to hover half-concealed behind a screen of black willows, 200 feet away. It would, however, glide out, to see what was taking place, then disappear. In describing a pair of breeding swallows, Brewster (1907) writes: “Once they alighted on a large, flat-topped boulder at the water’s edge where they moved about by a succession of short, quick runs, reminding me of Semipalmated Plover feeding on a sand beach. I have never before seen Swallows of any kind move so quickly by the aid of their feet alone.”
Henshaw (1875) says that on the Provo River, Utah, “they roost in large numbers upon the dead bushes along the banks. So numerous are they and so closely do they sit huddled together that six individuals were secured at a single shot.”
Voice: The roughwing is, generally speaking, a silent bird; its notes, rather weak and inaudible at a distance, are described as “harsh” or “squeaky” by observers.
Dickey (MS.) writes: “They give vent to a kind of rasping squeak, difficult to describe in mere words. The exclamations are vented while the species glides upstream or when it is approached near the nest; quiz~: r—z: zeep; quiz: z: z-: zeep is what it sounds like.” Cooper (1870) writes: “They have only a faint twittering note when flying.”
Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) refer to the call of the roughwing as “their sputtery notes, pssrt, pssrt.”
Enemies: The rough-winged swallow does not appear to be greatly victimized by predatory birds and mammals; strong powers of flight, more or less inaccessible nesting sites, and generally solitary habits combine to keep it out of danger.
H. H. Bailey (1913) says: “The mortality in this section is great, their chief enemy being the black snake.”
Probably the greatest. cause of destruction to eggs and young is the flooding of the burrows by spring tides and river freshets. According to Wayne (1910) this condition is quite prevalent in the flat, sandy coastal country of the Southeast. It also often happens elsewhere, owing to the fact that, while this swallow usually burrows near the top of the bank, it often excavates nearer the base. In building under bridges and culverts the bird sometimes places its nest so near the water that even a slight rise would engulf it. Dickey (MS.) says: “From potholes in sandstone cliffs near Worely, Monongalia County, W. Va., I have known anglers to extract the young of rough-winged swallows. These, they contended, proved to be excellent bait in bass fishing in local creeks.”
Peters (1936) lists specimens of this swallow from Maryland and Virginia as being found infected with the mites Lixmussus sylviaruom and Atrkholaelaps sp.
Without positive proof I believe that the common sand crab (Ocypode athicans) might, to a limited extent, prey on eggs and nestings of the ronghwing. This crustacean abounds on the south Atlantic coast, excavating its burrows in sand hills and the bases of sand banks, as do the swallows. It causes much damage by burrowing into turtle nests on the Carolina coast and consuming the eggs. It is ever on the alert for anything edible that the waves might bring ashore. Terns and shearwaters washed up after hurricanes are quickly ruined as specimens, as I have several times sorrowfully experienced.
Winter: While this swallow is highly migratory and the great majority of individuals winter south of the United States, records from five States designate it as a winter visitant within our borders. It is possible that some of the so-called spring arrivals are birds that have wintered in the neighborhood. Wayne (1910) says: “The birds of this species which winter along the coast, generally, if not invariably, confine themselves to large bodies of water adjacent to wooded lands.”
Griscom (1932) says that “the Rough-winged Swallow is a common winter visit to the whole of Guatemala, except the Pacific coast.” He quotes from Mr. Anthony’s notes as follows: “Common during the winter months to about 8000 feet altitude. The first were noted at Progreso about September 8, with mixed flocks of Cliff and Barn Swallows. A considerable flight of these species appeared at this station on the above date and hundreds were seen along the telegraph wires for a day or two, when they became much less common but not rare until the following May. In the altitudes, Stelgidopteryx is apt to be seen with Tachycineta which is equally common.”
Range: North and South America.
Breeding range: The rough-winged swallow breeds north to central British Columbia (Kispiox Valley); Alberta (probably Jasper Park, Camrose, and Lake Newell); northeastern Montana (Bowdoin Lake); North Dakota (Bismarck and Grafton); southeastern Manitoba (Indian Bay); Wisconsin (Danbury and Orienta); northern Michigan (Blaney and Mackinac); southern Ontario (Barrie, Kingston, and Ottawa); Vermont (Norwich); and New Hampshire (Ashland and Snowville). East to New Hampshire (Snowville and Boscawen); Rhode Island (Charlestown and Westerly); Massachusetts (Swansea); and south along the Atlantic coast to Florida (St. Augustine, New Smyrna, and Osteen); northeastern Colombia (Fonseca); and central Brazil (Rio Xingu, Rio Jamauchim, and Rio de Janeiro). South to southern Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, Descalvados, and Matto Grosso) and southern Ecuador (Juntas de Tamana, Zamora, and Casanga). West to western Ecuador (Casanga, Duran, and Esmeraldas); western Colombia (Barbacoas, Las Lomitas, and San Jose); and north along the Pacific coast of Central America, California, Oregon, and Washington, to British Columbia (Alberni, Comox, Hazelton, and Kispiox Valley).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, of which only one race (Stelgidopteryx ruficollis serripennis) is found north of Central America. The southern fbrms are apparently nonmigratory.
Winter range: During the winter season, the North American form is found north to southern Sonora (Alamos); Durango (Chacala); Veracruz (Orizaba and Tiacotalpan); and Quintana Roo (Tulum). East to Quintana Roo (Tulum and Camp Mengel); and Costa Rica (San Jose). South to Costa Rica (San Jose); Guatemala (Progreso and San Lucas); and Guerrero (Ometepec and Acapulco). West to Guerrero (Acapulco) ; Colima (Manzanillo); Nayarit (Gavilan) ; Sinaloa (Mazatlan) ; and Sonora (Alamos).
The species has been recorded at San Diego, Calif., on January 27; ‘~a number” were reported as seen at New Roads, La., on December 15, 1917, and one was collected at Baton Rouge, on January 26, 1938; while a single bird was recorded at St. Marks, Fla., on January 2, 1917.
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Florida: Pensacola, March 18. Georgia: Athens, March 20. South Carolina: Columbia, March 20. North Carolina: Raleigh, March 28. Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, March 30. New Jersey: Morristown, April 14. New York: New York City, April 12. Connecticut: Fairfield, April 17. Vermont: Bennington, April 25. Mississippi: Biloxi, March 30. Arkansas: Helena, March 13. Tennessee: Nashville, March 20. Missouri: Monteer, March 27. Indiana: Richmond, April 11. Ohio: Oberlin, April 16. Michigan: Ann Arbor, April 17. Ontario: London, April 17. lowa: Keokuk, March 27. Wisconsin: Madison, April 8. Minnesota: Minneapolis, April 8. Texas: San Antonio, February 15. Oklahoma: Tulsa, April 6. Kansas: Manhattan, April 5. Nebraska: Red Cloud, April 16. South Dakota: Vermillion, April 19. North Dakota: Grafton, April 27. Arizona: Tucson, February 19. Colorado: Denver, April 18. Wyoming: Laramie, May 1. Montana: Missoula, April 25. California: Santa Barbara, February 24. Oregon: Mercer, April 7. Washington: Tacoma, April 3. British Columbia: Chilliwack, April’5.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, September 28. Washington: Pullman, September 11. Oregon: Newport, September 6. California: San Diego, November 9. Montana: Fortine, September 9. Wyoming: Laramie, September 4. Arizona: Fort Verde, September 20. South Dakota: Yankton, August 24. Nebraska: Red Cloud, September 11. Kansas: Onaga, September 16. Oklahoma: Tulsa, October 5. Minnesota: Minneapolis, September 20. Wisconsin: New London, Sep.. tember 20. lowa: Indianola, September 27. Ontario: Toronto, September 13. Ohio: Oberlin, September 23. Indiana: Richmond, October 1. Missouri: St. Louis, October 11. Tennessee: Athens, October 13. Arkansas: Hot Springs National Park, October 14. Mississippi: Edwards, October 5. Louisiana: New Orleans, Novem. ber 5. Vermont: Wells River, August 4. Massachusetts: Ipswich, September 5. Connecticut: Fairfield, September 2. New York: Rhinebeck, September 9. New Jersey: Hackettstown, September 11. Pennsylvania: McKeesport, September 4. District of Columbia: Washington, September 11. Georgia: Savannah, October 15. Florida: Pensacola, October 11; Key West, October 24.
Casual records: One was seen at Eastend, Saskatchewan, on July 20, 1930.
Egg dates: California: 23 records, April 15 to July 9; 13 records, May 10 to June 3, indicating the height of the season. Illinois: 9 records, May 17 to June 6.
Pennsylvania: 14 records, May 3 to June 15; 8 records, May 21 to June 9.
Washington: 6 records, June 11 to July 4.