7 Types Of SWALLOWS In California (ID Guide With Photos)

Did you recently come across a swallow in the state of California, and want to know what species it was?

Identifying swallows in the Golden State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many swallow species in California.

To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most common swallows of California in this article.

Types of swallows found in California

What are the types of swallows in California?

The 7 types of swallows found in California are:

  • Barn Swallow
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Purple Martin
  • Tree Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Bank Swallow
  • Violet-green Swallow

While some of these swallows are year round residents of California, others only occur in the state during the winter, while yet others are summer visitors during the breeding season.

Finally some are only seen in the state of California during migration in fall and spring.

Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these birds:

Barn Swallow

Scientific name: Hirundo rustica

Photo of Barn Swallow adult male

The Barn Swallow inhabits nearly all of North America south of the Arctic circle and may be found in a wide variety of habitats.

It is a summer visitor and breeding bird in northern California, and common throughout the state during migration.

While it has dark iridescent blue  upperparts, its underside is reddish-orange, including a chestnut orange forehead and throat, as well as a light reddish-orange belly.

The deeply forked tail of Barn Swallows is another great feature you can use to identify this bird. 

However, keep in mind that immature birds have a duller plumage than adults, as well as a shorter tail that is less forked.

This bird used to nest in caves and hollow trees, but nowadays it prefers to do so beneath the overhangs of buildings and bridges, as well as inside barns (which explains how it got its name).

Barn Swallows are still a reasonably common sight in most areas. However, the overall numbers of these birds have been steadily decreasing, especially in the northern section of their range.

This decline is likely a result of the loss of foraging areas and nesting opportunities.

This bird feeds on flying insects, such as mosquitoes and flies, and catches them closer to the ground than other species of swallows. In its winter quarters it also feeds on termites.

It is a strictly migratory bird, and spends the winter in Central and Southern America.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Scientific name: Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Photo of Northern Rough-winged Swallow

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is a common breeding bird throughout North America during the summer. 

With a uniformly light brown upper side and buff white underside, it is less colorful than other species, and often goes unnoticed.

In California, this swallow is a summer visitor throughout the entire state, as well as a year-round resident in southeastern California.

These birds prefer to hunt over water, hunting flying insects over rivers, lakes, and ponds. You can also often see it resting on telephone wires or other exposed perches.

This bird is a burrow nester that occupies abandoned cavities built by other birds. It migrates south in winter, and spends the cold months in the Gulf Coast and Central America.

Related: The yellow birds of California

Purple Martin

Scientific name: Progne subis

Photo of Purple Martin

The Purple Martin is the largest swallow in North America. The male is almost entirely dark purplish blue with an iridescent sheen. The wings and tail are black.

Juvenile birds and females are light gray on top, with beige white underparts. The male Purple Martin is the only martin species that doesn’t have a light colored belly.

While these blue-colored California birds originally built their nest in tree cavities, they have switched over to using man-made nesting sites instead. 

The Purple Martin likes to nest in colonies, which often comprise dozens of pairs. It is a skilled aerial hunter, and feeds mostly on dragonflies.

Similar to other species of swallows, the Purple Martin drinks in flight, by skimming the surface of a body of water. 

This bird is a strictly migratory species and spends the winter in South America. It congregates in large roosts in fall, which fly south together.

The best way to attract these gorgeous blue birds to your yard is by putting up a Purple Martin house in your backyard, 

Tree Swallow

Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor

Photo of Tree Swallow

The Tree Swallow is a common breeding bird in northern California and a winter bird in southern California. It is most often found close to lakes, marshes, and ponds. 

Adult birds are greenish blue on top, and have buff white underparts. Their feathers are iridescent, and change color when viewed in direct sunlight. 

While adult females look similar to adult males, young individuals are more grayish brown with a white underside. 

This bird readily accepts suitable nesting boxes, which gives you an opportunity to attract this attractive blue-colored bird to your backyard. 

Tree Swallows can be seen throughout the Golden State during migration in fall and spring.

Cliff Swallow

Scientific name: Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

Photo of Cliff Swallow

The Cliff Swallow is a summer visitor and breeding bird in northern California, as well as along the California coast.

It prefers open country, as well as bodies of water, where it forages for flying insects. It is a uniquely colored bird that has a rust red forehead and cheeks.

The rest of the plumage is mostly dark, except for the light cream colored belly. The female looks similar to the male.

Similar to several other species on this list, this bird is a long-distance migrant that spends its winter in South America. 

During migration, these birds are often encountered in mixed flocks with other swallow species. 

Bank Swallow

Scientific name: Riparia riparia

Photo of Bank Swallow

The Bank Swallow is a breeding bird in the northernmost part of California, but is also regularly seen throughout the state during migration season in fall and spring. 

These birds are light brown on top, and buff white on the belly. The best distinguishing feature to identify this bird is its brown band across the chest.

During migration it is often found in mixed flocks with other swallows, which can make identification more difficult. However, if you spot the brown chest band, you can be sure you’re looking at a Bank Swallow.

While this bird has a huge global range that encompasses most continents except for Australia and Antarctica, it has unfortunately undergone a steep decline in North America in recent years. 

Violet-green Swallow

Scientific name: Tachycineta thalassina

Photo of Violet-green Swallow

This beautiful swallow is a bird of the western USA, and is found as a summer visitor throughout California.

While this bird initially looks like it has an entirely dark upper side, when it catches the sunlight, you’ll notice the iridescent green plumage on its back.

These green birds readily accept nesting boxes, and other nest cavities in urban areas. They are most often observed hunting insects over California rivers and lakes.

During the cold season they migrate south to spend the winter in Mexico and Central America.

Conclusion

And there we have the swallows found in the state of California.

The varied habitats of California are home to more than 450 different species of birds, and swallows make up a significant proportion of this rich avifauna.

These elegant birds that spend most of their time in the air play a vital role in the ecology of their habitats.If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the doves of California.