Watchable Wildlife: Cliff Swallows

Arkansas Today
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Summer in Arkansas is the time to spot swarms of busy cliff swallow building mud nests and raising their babies under bridges and overpasses.

How do I spot a cliff swallow?

Cliff Swallows zoom around in intricate aerial patterns to catch insects on the wing. When feeding in flocks with other species of swallows, they often stay higher in the air. Look for their rounded, broad-based wings, a small head, and a medium-length, squared tail.

Where can I see cliff swallows?

The cliff swallow is one of the most social landbirds of North America and there is a large, active colony under the Big Dam Bridge during the summer months. They can be spotted statewide—look for colonies along the Arkansas River Valley and up to the Ozarks. They originally were birds of the western mountains, where they still nest underneath horizontal rock. In the past 100 to 150 years, these birds have expanded their range into eastern North America.  Construction of highway culverts, bridges, and buildings that provide abundant alternative nesting sites.

What type of nests do they build?

They build their gourd-shaped mud nests clustered under horizontal overhangs, usually on vertical surface with some overhead shelter. They fight for nest sites by grappling in half-built nests or on the bare wall. Fighting birds sometimes fall into the water and manage to row with their wings to reach the shore. Both sexes gather mud in their bills along streambanks, lakesides, or puddles. They bring mud pellets back in their bills and mold them into place with a shaking motion. The finished nest is gourd shaped and contains 900–1,200 individual mud pellets. The pair lines their nest with dried grass and continues patching it up with mud throughout the breeding season.

What do they eat?

Cliff swallows eat flying insects all year round, foraging during the day. They feed on the wing above grassy pastures, plowed fields, rivers, lakes, and towns. Their diet includes many types of flying insects (especially swarming species): flies, bees, wasps, ants, beetles, lacewings, mayflies, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, and damselflies. When a Cliff swallow has had a hard time finding food, it will watch its neighbors in the nesting colony and follow one to food when it leaves. One bird may give a specific call that alerts other cliff swallows that food is available.

Where do they go for winter?

Cliff Swallows leave Arkansas in the fall, sticking together in large flocks, and spend several months migrating at a leisurely pace through Mexico and Central America before reaching their wintering grounds in southern South America.

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