Bank SwallowRiparia riparia

Laure W. Neish/VIREO
Greg Lasley/VIREO
Arthur Morris/VIREO
Greg Lasley/VIREO



The smallest of our swallows, the Bank Swallow is usually seen in flocks, flying low over ponds and rivers with quick, fluttery wingbeats. It nests in dense colonies, in holes in dirt or sand banks. Some of these colonies are quite large, and a tall cut bank may be pockmarked with several hundred holes. Despite their small size, tiny bills, and small feet, these swallows generally dig their own nesting burrows, sometimes up to five feet long.


Near water; fields, marshes, streams, lakes. Typically seen feeding in flight over (or near) water at all seasons, even in migration. Nests in colonies in vertical banks of dirt or sand, usually along rivers or ponds, seldom away from water.

Feeding Diet

Insects. Feeds on a wide variety of flying insects. Eats many flies (including house flies and crane flies), beetles, wasps, winged ants, small bees, and true bugs, plus some dragonflies, stoneflies, moths, caterpillars, and others.

Feeding Behavior

Feeds almost entirely in flight. Often forages in flocks, and typically flies rather low, doing much feeding over water. Rarely feeds on ground, mainly in severe weather.


Almost always nests in colonies in vertical banks of sand or dirt; may be along riverbanks, lake shores, road cuts, gravel pits, or similar sites. Often dense colonies, with entrances to holes no more than a foot apart. All the pairs in a colony may be synchronized in timing of their nesting activities. Nest site is in burrow excavated in steep bank. Both sexes help dig burrow, beginning by clinging to bank and digging with bill, later crawling inside burrow and kicking out dirt with feet. Burrows usually 2-3' long, sometimes 1-5' long. Nest at end of horizontal burrow is made of grass, weeds, rootlets, with a lining of feathers added after eggs are laid. Eggs: 4-5, sometimes 3-7. White. Incubation is by both parents, 14-16 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 18-24 days after hatching.


4-5, sometimes 3-7. White. Incubation is by both parents, 14-16 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 18-24 days after hatching.


Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 18-24 days after hatching.


Local populations vary with availability of good colony sites. Loss of such sites may be contributing to long-term declines in overall numbers.


Migrates north relatively late in spring compared to other swallows. A long-distance migrant, wintering in lowlands of South America. In late summer, may gather in huge flocks before southward migration.


calls of flock

Similar Species


Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Two kinds of brown-backed swallows nest in holes in dirt banks. The Rough-wing is the solitary one, not nesting in colonies like the Bank Swallow. It is usually seen singly or in small groups, even during migration, in rapid low flight over rivers or fields. The name "Rough-winged" comes from small serrations on the outermost wing feathers. The function of these is unknown, but they may produce sounds during courtship flights.

adult male

Tree Swallow

The popularity of the bluebird has been a boon to the Tree Swallow, which nests in holes of exactly the same size, and has taken advantage of bluebird houses over much of North America. In regions with no such ready supply of artificial nest sites, the swallows must compete with other cavity-nesting birds, arriving early in spring to stake out territories. Unlike other swallows, Tree Swallows eat many berries (especially bayberries), allowing them to survive through wintry spells when other insect-eaters might starve.

adult male

Violet-green Swallow

A small swallow of the west, nesting from Alaska to central Mexico. Similar to the Tree Swallow in appearance and also in behavior, nesting in tree cavities and in birdhouses; it also will nest in rock crevices of cliffs in rugged terrain. Flocks are often seen flying high over mountain pine forests or over steep canyons.

adult male

Barn Swallow

One of our most familiar birds in rural areas and semi-open country, this swallow is often seen skimming low over fields with a flowing, graceful flight. It seems to have adopted humans as neighbors, typically placing its nest in barns or garages, or under bridges or wharves; indeed, it is now rare to find a Barn Swallow nest in a site that is not manmade. The species is also common across Europe and Asia, wintering to southern Africa and South America.


Cave Swallow

As recently as the 1960s, this was a rare bird in the United States. It nested only in a few southwestern caves, plastering its cuplike mud nest against the walls in the dimly lit interior. Since then it has "learned" to nest in artificial sites, in culverts and under bridges, and it has become a common summer bird across much of Texas and southern New Mexico (with an outlying colony in Florida). In some places, Cave Swallows may actively compete with Cliff Swallows for these artificial nest sites.


Cliff Swallow

This swallow is probably far more common today than when the Pilgrims landed. Originally it built its jug-shaped mud nests on the sides of cliffs. However, the sides of barns and the supports of bridges provided sheltered sites that were far more widespread than the natural ones. Taking advantage of these artificial locations, the species has invaded many areas where it never nested before. Although it is continuing to spread in the east, it is still more common in the west, where practically every culvert and highway bridge seems to have its own Cliff Swallow colony.

adult male

Purple Martin

Graceful in flight, musical in its pre-dawn singing, this big swallow is one of our most popular birds. Almost all Purple Martins in the east now nest in birdhouses put up especially for them. Martin housing has a long history: some Native American tribes reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds. Purple Martins migrate to South America for the winter, but before leaving, they may gather to roost in groups of thousands in late summer.


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