Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Range Map

Cliff Swallows breed in most of North America, even to Alaska, but spend winters in northwestern and central South America. These are the famous swallows that return to Capistrano. In Southern California, sightings of many species of swallow are common, but the Cliff Swallow is by far the most numerous.

These birds usually nest in colonies, and while cliff faces are where they evolved their nest-building style, they have adapted to use buildings for attaching their mud nests. This relatively recent practice is not always appreciated by two-legged species charged with maintaining building appearances.

Swallows are a challenge to photograph in flight. They’re fast moving aerialists who change direction in an instant, making accurate captures nearly accidental. And as a small target, getting close shots compounds the challenge of keeping them in the photo-frame. But if it was easy, everyone would do it.

Cliff Swallow colonies are bustling centers of activity. Birds are constantly coming and going. Sometimes individual members will take advantage of a neighbor’s absence, and lay an egg in the neighbor’s nest. Researchers have even documented birds carrying one of their eggs in their mouth to deposit into another’s nest.

Today’s science recognises four subspecies of Cliff Swallow. All members spend their winters in South America:

  • P. p. pyrrhonota breeds in North America from Alaska and Canada south to Mexico in the USA.
  • P. p. ganieri breeds in the southern USA west of the Appalachians.
  • P. p. tachina breeds in the southern USA in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and southwest Texas, and south into Baja California.
  • P. p. melanogaster breeds in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and Old Mexico.

In 2022 I had some fun with shadow-puppets. Cliff Swallows were already well on their way to building their colonies of mud-nests under the bridge crossing the Snake River Mouth in Burbank Washington, and I found the shadows of the flying birds to be as interesting as the birds themselves.

22 Photos

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