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Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Common Name: Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

Scientific Name: Stelgidopteryx Serripennis.

What to look for?  A bird whose coloring is simply described as “plain!” The Northern Rough-winged Swallow has a plain brown back and dusky throat. They won’t stand out in flocks of other brighter colored swallow species. It is a small, but long-bodied bird. It has a small head and bill. Its wings are long and relatively broad and pointed. The tail of a Northern Rough-winged Swallow is short and very square. Both sexes are quite similar.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Jetting over our ponds! Northern Rough-winged Swallows may be seen intermixed with the Tree and Barn Swallows darting above the surface of Carillon Stonegate Pond. And if you are out for a walk this Spring, you may find several over our ponds.

How big are they? The Northern Rough-winged Swallow averages just over 5approximately 5 ½ inches in length. And their wingspan is just over eleven (11) inches. They weigh approximately 0.5 ounces.

What are their flight patterns? Northern Rough-winged Swallows are very agile fliers. Their flight style is called "Flap-gliding" where short bursts of flapping are alternated with intervals in which the wings are extended in a glide. Northern Rough-winged Swallows – like Tree and Barn Swallows - live much of their life on the wing - drinking, feeding, courting, and even mating in mid-air. They are acrobatic fliers, making sharp twists, turns, swoops, and lunges. Northern Rough-winged Swallows often cruise low, flying just a few inches above the ground or water. Their wingbeats are slower, more deliberate, and fluttery than other swallows. During glides they tend to hold their wings straight out from the body with less of a bend in the wing than other swallows.

How else do they behave? Like many swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows also drink and even bathe on the wing, dipping down to take a mouthful of water or touch their belly to the surface for a quick rinse. At nest sites, males often perch nearby to defend the nest from intruders, especially during nest construction and egg laying. Outside of the breeding season they frequently mix with other swallow species that we observe on Carillon Stonegate Pond.

What’s for dinner? The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is an insectivore. It only eats insects. They feed on a wide variety of flying insects, especially flies. Other insects on its dining menu include beetles, wasps, wild bees, winged ants, some moths, damselflies, grasshoppers, and a few spiders.

Where do they take up residence? Northern Rough-winged Swallows can be found across most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. They are common throughout the United States and southern Canada during the summer - and they spend time here in Illinois. You can find Northern Rough-winged Swallows residing near lakes, ponds, and rivers.

Where do they breed and nest? Northern Rough-winged Swallows usually breed in Spring. They nest in burrows created by other animals - such as kingfishers, squirrels, and other Swallows - in clay, sand, or gravel banks, typically near water. They are more solitary than other Swallows and do not nest in colonies. Northern Rough-winged Swallows have a single brood annually. The female will lay from four (4) to eight (8) eggs. The incubation period is about sixteen (16) days. Young leave the nest about three (3) weeks after hatching.

Where do they migrate? Yes, they are seasonal travelers. The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is a “neotropical migrant". They leave their breeding range in the fall and travel south in flocks of mixed swallow species to winter in Mexico and Central America. Northern Rough-winged Swallows fly from their North American breeding grounds such as Illinois by late summer. They return here as early as March or April. Because both fall and spring migrations extend over many weeks, large concentrations of migrating Northern Rough-winged Swallows are unusual.

What is their conservation status? There is low conservation concern. However, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Northern Rough-winged Swallow populations have declined throughout their range by about 18% over the last several decades. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 18 million. Northern Rough-winged Swallows rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Northern Rough-winged Swallows are generally silent. Its song is a faint, gurgling, and hoarse sound. Here is a link to the sounds of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

Interesting Facts About the Northern Rough-winged Swallow Swallow:

  • The name 'Rough-winged' comes from small serrations on the outermost wing feathers (see 3rd photo).

  • The genus name of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow is Stelgidopteryx, which means "scraper wing"; the species name, serripennis, means "saw feather."

  • The oldest recorded Northern Rough-winged Swallow was approximately 6 years old.

For more information on the Northern Rough-winged Swallow and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About BirdsAudubon SocietyBirdweb and the Missouri Department of Conservation. And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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