Cliff Swallows in the Piney Woods

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse, Boyce, LA

Prior to the past couple of decades, you'd be lucky to find a Cliff Swallow in our region. They're named Cliff Swallows because they evolved building their unusual mud nests on the sides of cliffs and there aren't many cliffs in our piney woods!

Nowadays, our engineers have created all manner of artificial cliffs in the forms of bridges across waterways, highways, and railroads. These provide protected, vertical surfaces on which these feathered engineers mold mud pellets into gourd-shaped structures in which they build their nests. In the case bridges crossing rivers, mud is readily available. In other areas, the swallows may bring mud pellets from distances of a mile or more.

In the last edition of "Louisiana Birds" in 1974, Professor George H. Lowery, Jr. reported that Cliff Swallows are "...absent from Louisiana...." with the exception of a few specimen passing during spring and fall migration. Now, there is hardly a major bridge in the state that doesn't host a spring/summer breeding colony of these attractive birds.

It's hard to improve on Professor Lowery's description of adult Cliff Swallows. So, I won't! " .displays a variety of colors and markings; the forehead is white, the back streaked lightly with white, the rup pale rufous, the tail blackish, the sides of the head chestnut, the breast gray with only the belly white, and the lower throat black ." The tails of other swallows occurring in Louisiana are either forked or notched. That of the Cliff Swallow is uniform.

Cliff Swallows arrive in our area from distant wintering grounds in southern South America in March and April. In fact, many have heard of the famous swallows of California's Capistrano Mission that return to nest there on the "same" day every year. Well, those swallows are Cliff Swallows and the actual day of arrival is a bit variable contrary to legend!

Cliff Swallow nests have to be located in an area protected from the weather lest they be washed away by rain. The dried mud is not tempered by heat and water melts it away. I can recall when it was a big deal to find a Cliff Swallow colony anywhere in our region. Now, they seem to be everywhere with colonies ranging from a few gourd-shaped nests to hundreds, even thousands of nests in areas with plenty of flying insects, primary food, available. These include major bridges and water control structures including the locks and dams along the Red River in Louisiana.

Cliff Swallow colonies large and small can be persistent from year to year or spontaneously disappear. There seem to be no specific reasons for disappearance of colonies but House Sparrows will colonize vacant Cliff Swallow nests before they return from their wintering grounds in the spring. However, the sparrows are unable to renovate these structures and their purloined nests will normally be destroyed by normal wear and tear.

Some interesting "facts" about Cliff Swallows:
- Cliff Swallows will follow neighbors to locate food. When a swallow finds food away from the colony when weather is poor, it may give a specific call that alerts its neighbors to a food source like a swarm of insects.
- After leaving their nests, young Cliff Swallows will form large groups called "creches". The parents can find their offspring by voice and distinctive facial markings.