Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis


The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is brown-backed, dusky-throated.

Summers throughout the United States of America, northern Mexico and southwestern parts of Canada, wintering in southern tip of Florida, and southern Mexico through Panama.


General: Warmish brownish-gray underparts, whitish underparts; grayish wash on chin, throat and upper breast; long wings; tiny bill; forked tail.

Larger and stockier than Bank Swallow, with broader wings; shorter, square tail; bulkier body.

Adult Male: plain brown with drab, no contrasting markings, buffy throat, pale bases of flight feathers translucent, broad white under tail coverts visible from above.

Adult female: Same as adult male

Juvenile: Plain, drab below with dusky throat, plain brown above.
Juvenile May-November buffy throat, bright cinnamon wing-bars.

Similar Species: Bank Swallow Riparia riparia

Diet: Entirely insects; occasionally taken from ground
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is an aerial forager adept at low-elevation flight over fields and along narrow gullies and other irregular terrain. It feeds over water more than most species of swallows and occasionally picks floating insects from the water surface. Although fairly common throughout its breeding range, which includes virtually all of North America south of southern Canada, it is a bird that is easily missed. Breeding Bird Survey data show that of all North American swallows, this species has by far the fewest individuals counted per route where observed

Breeding: Open country, savanna, especially near running water. One brood. Mating system is monogamous.

Displays: In courtship flight, males pursue females, displaying white feathers at lower base of tail

Nest: At end of burrow 4 to 5 feet (1 to 6 feet) deep, or in other cavity or niche; of grass, leaves, weed stems, occasionally moist horse dung, no feather lining. In addition to occasionally excavating burrows, nest in deserted kingfisher burrows, rodent holes, and a wide variety of niches under bridges and wharves, in culverts, sewer pipes, etc. Both sexes help with nest construction.

Eggs: White, unmarked. 0.7" (18 mm).

Chick Development: Female incubates. Incubation takes 12 days. Development is altricial (immobile, downless, eyes closed, fed). Young leave the nest after 19-21 days. Both sexes tend young.

Habitat: These swallows prefers open areas and nests singly or in small colonies in burrows or crevices, including those in human-made structures.


Usually solitary, occasionally loosely colonial. Often nest in Bank Swallow colony, where they perch on roots protruding from bank, something Bank Swallows never do. Function of serrations on outer primary feathers (from which name is derived) is unknown; possibly function to produce sounds in courtship flight.

Because the form of the nest varies from habitat to habitat, and must be adapted to fit a bewildering diversity of supporting structures, it is not surprising that an almost limitless variety of materials (including stones and mud, animal and plant products, and human-made artifacts) have at one time or another been incorporated into nests. Avian products that become part of nests include saliva (the main ingredient in cave swiftlet nests used in Chinese "bird's nest" soup), ejected pellets, feathers, down, and guano. Feathers are highly valued, in part because of their capacity to trap air and provide insulation. Products of other animal species may include silk from cocoons and spider webs, cast snake skins, hair, fur, bits of cow pats, shells, etc. The variety of plant and manufactured products found in nests is enormous, including virtually anything that can be carried.

This swallow’s most distinguishing characteristic is its “rough” primary feather, from which its common name has been derived (see Fig. 6). In adults the stiffened barbs of the leading web of the outer primary feather lack terminal barbules. In males the barbs are recurved into minute hooklets, and in the female they are prolonged into a definite, naked point that is little or not at all recurved. In males this produces “a file-like roughness when the finger is drawn along the edge of the quill from base toward tip” (Ridgway 1904). Early taxonomists were so taken with this characteristic that they referred to it in both the genus and species portions of this bird’s scientific name. The Greek appellation for the genus, Stelgidopteryx, is a combination of two words meaning “scraper wing,” and the species name of serripennis, assigned by Audubon, is a combination of two Latin words meaning “saw feather.” The possible adaptive significance of this feature remains a mystery.

Conservation Status:

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow has adapted well to environmental changes caused by human activity and is presently not listed as a conservation concern.
Capture Rates

Small numbers of this usually solitary aerial insectivore arrive at Colony Farms in late May. This, as well as being difficult to capture, is reflected by low capture rates of Northern Rough-winged Swallows during June and July. Capture rates are standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours from 2010 - 2012.

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