ALWAYS IN SEASON: Cliff swallows may be our most abundant birds

The answer to this question would depend on the day you asked it: What is the most abundant bird in the Red River Valley? If the question were rephrased, there would be a different answer: What is the most common bird in North Dakota? Abundance d...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

The answer to this question would depend on the day you asked it:

What is the most abundant bird in the Red River Valley?

If the question were rephrased, there would be a different answer:

What is the most common bird in North Dakota?

Abundance depends on the season of the year and conditions in nature, such as shelter, food sources and water levels.


Common depends instead on the ease of finding a particular species.

Thus, the American robin might be considered the most common bird in the valley because virtually everyone encounters a robin every day.

But the robin is far from the most abundant species here.

Today, the most abundant species probably is the cliff swallow.

In September, it may be the red-winged blackbird. In October, it may be the snow goose. And in December, snow buntings may be most abundant.

That's depending on conditions, of course. An open winter on the Canadian prairies might keep the number of snow buntings down. An early harvest might prompt blackbirds to leave the area earlier than usual.

But cliff swallows are dependable in their own season, and that season is mid-July.

Young-of-the-year are leaving cliff swallow nests every day in mid-July, swelling the population of the species.


You're probably familiar with cliff swallows, even if you're not conscious of having seen one. The species nests on bridges, commonly, less often on buildings and only rarely on natural cliffs -- its original home site. Cliff swallows are colonial nesters.

One such colony occurs under the Kennedy Bridge on U.S. Highway 2 in Grand Forks. There's another under the Sorlie Bridge on DeMers Avenue downtown.

These colonies are of modest size, perhaps a few hundred pairs. But cliff swallow colonies can reach enormous size, involving thousands of birds.

The cliff swallow is not the only swallow to be seen along the Red River on summer days. Bank swallows are relatively common, though not any where nearly so abundant as cliff swallows. Barn swallows occur in Grand Forks, too, although they are much more likely to be found in rural areas than in urban centers. Grand Forks also has tree swallows, purple martins and an occasional rough-winged swallow -- for a grand total of six swallow species.

Swallows are easy to recognize.

First, they are most often seen on the wing. They are excellent fliers, capable of close and rapid maneuvers. At rest, they tend to be elongated birds, befitting their aerodynamic requirements.

Tails and breast bands are the best way to distinguish the swallow species.

The barn swallow has a deeply forked tail. Other swallow species have square tails, some somewhat notched.


Barn swallows are large as swallows go, though not as large as purple martins, which seem rather bulkier in flight than other swallows.

Cliff swallows, tree swallows and bank swallows are smaller than barn swallows, in part at least because their tails and wings are shorter.

Tree swallows typically are brilliant white on the breast. Bank swallows seem smudged on the breast, and so do rough-winged swallows. Generally speaking, if the swallow is along, or with a single other bird, it is likely a rough-winged swallow. Bank swallows are more social.

Cliff swallows -- the most social of all swallows -- have chestnut on their faces and black in their throats -- the chestnut, but not the black, shared with barn swallows. In contrast to barn swallows, however, cliff swallows have blunt, squarish tails.

At close range, these six swallow species are fairly easy to distinguish. Practice, and patience, will help you separate them on the wing, as well.

I confess a special fondness for swallows, of all the birds, and in common with by northern European ancestors,

I regard their presence as a special favor. They would have been familiar with barn swallows, which are as common in Europe as in North America. The cliff swallow, however, is an American species.

Both barn swallows and cliff swallows are commensal with humans to a degree. Barn swallows have almost entirely abandoned their former habit of nesting under overhanging rocks to take up residence on buildings of all kinds. Similarly, cliff swallows have colonized human-made structures -- and they are almost certainly much more common in North America today than they were before European settlement.


Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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