Cave SwallowPetrochelidon fulva

Greg Lasley/VIREO
Greg Lasley/VIREO
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
Jim Culbertson/VIREO



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.


Semi-open country. Forages over any kind of open or semi-open terrain, especially near water. Breeding was formerly limited by scarcity of nest sites in natural caves or sinkholes. Now nests under bridges and in culverts, buildings, silos, many other artificial sites, allowing species to spread into new habitats.

Feeding Diet

Insects. Diet not known in detail, but feeds on a wide variety of flying insects, including beetles, flies, true bugs, wasps, bees, winged ants, grasshoppers, lacewings, moths, and others.

Feeding Behavior

Forages almost entirely in flight. May forage low over water or may forage much higher, mainly in clear warm weather. Often forages in flocks.


Typically nests in colonies, sometimes with hundreds of pairs. Nest: Natural site is on steep wall of cave or sinkhole, in area away from entrance but with at least some light. Artificial sites are on vertical surfaces in culverts, under bridges, or in buildings; in Yucatan Peninsula, may nest in ancient Mayan temples. In well-sheltered sites, nests may last for years and be used repeatedly. Nest (built by both sexes) is an open cup of mud plastered against wall. Birds in natural sites gather mud on cave bottom, where it often contains much bat guano. Nest is lined with grass, bark fibers, plant down, and feathers. Eggs: 3-4, sometimes 2-5. White, finely spotted with brown and purple. Incubation is probably by both parents, thought to be about 15 days. Young: Both parents bring food for nestlings. Young leave nest at about 20-26 days.


3-4, sometimes 2-5. White, finely spotted with brown and purple. Incubation is probably by both parents, thought to be about 15 days. Young: Both parents bring food for nestlings. Young leave nest at about 20-26 days.


Both parents bring food for nestlings. Young leave nest at about 20-26 days.


Range has expanded and population has greatly increased in recent decades.


Small Florida population supposedly winters in West Indies. Winter range of southwestern birds poorly known. In recent years, has begun wintering regularly in Texas. A remarkable dispersal now brings numbers of Cave Swallows to the middle Atlantic Coast and parts of the Great Lakes, far north of their breeding range, almost every year in late fall.



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.


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.


Bank Swallow

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.


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