Northern Rough-winged Swallow: Migrant Monday

It’s the best day of the week: Migration Monday!

On Thursday I posted about my most recent visit to Amico Island, where I spotted this mystery swallow. My gut was Northern Rough-winged Swallow, but I wasn’t 100% so I asked around to other birders. People agreed, so I have a new bird for my life list. Although fairly common in the United States, Northern Rough-winged Swallows are the least known of the eight Northern American swallows. I thought this would be the perfect time to give these neat little birds the recognition they deserve.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Image by BirdNation)

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)


These small swallows have brown upperparts, white underparts, and a dull brown throat. They have small black bills, long pointed wings, and a forked tail. The “rough-winged” part of their name describes the serrated edges on the outer part of their wing feathers. Juveniles are similar, but have a cinnamon-colored wing bars. Northern rough-winged Swallows look similar to Bank Swallows, which are smaller and have a distinct brown band over their white chest.


An early spring migrant. Breeds throughout lower Canada and United States. Winters in Southern California, southern Florida, and the Gulf Coast.  They migrate to Central America. A resident of Mexico.

Swallow in flight (Image by Shanthanu Bhardwaj via wikimedia commons)


Riverbanks, streams,and  lakes. They can be found in open, drier country, but usually near water.


Almost exclusively insects. They catch their food in flight low over the water.


Unlike other kinds of swallows, Northern rough-winged Swallows do not breed in colonies. They usually breed in single pairs, or sometimes a few pairs in a favorable area. During courtship males will display their white tail feathers in flight. These swallows nest in burrows in a vertical dirt bank. Sometimes they will build their own burrow, but will usually used an abandoned spots made by Belted Kingfishers or Bank Swallows. Northern Rough-winged Swallows have one brood a year. The female will incubate 5-7 eggs for about 12-16 days. Both parents will feed the chicks, which will fledge 19-21 days after hatching.


A low drawn out br-r-ret, usually doubled

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Northern Rough-winged Swallows will nest in unnatural places such as drainpipes, holes on the sides of buildings,under bridges, and other human structures. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there is a documented case of a pair nesting in a Civil War cannon.
Adult Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Image by Basar via wikimedia commons)
  • The edges of the male’s wings are hooked, while the female’s edges are more straight. If you ran your finger down the side of its wing it would give the sensation of touching a rough file. Scientists don’t know the function of the serrated “rough-wing”, though the wings may make a sound during courtship flights.
  • When they fly, Northern Rough-winged Swallows alternate between smooth short glides and slow wing beats.



Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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