Rough-winged swallows are plain little birds that are big in being adaptable enough to use a variety of niches, both natural and human-made, for nesting.

They raise young along creeks and ponds in woods and farmland across much of the United States, including here in southeastern Pennsylvania. And they winter from the southern United States to the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Rough-wings hatch offspring as isolated pairs or as small, loose colonies, depending on how many nesting places are in any one area.

Their traditional protective nesting sites are crevices in cliffs, abandoned belted kingfisher burrows in the upper parts of stream banks, and holes dug by the swallows themselves in those same stream banks.

And today, the adaptable and successful rough-wings also rear babies in protective human-made sites, including niches in quarry walls, drainage pipes in water-retaining walls, under certain bridges over small waterways, and in drain pipes from spouting that extend over waterways.

I’ve also noticed a rough-wing nursery under a never-moved truck used for storage near a creek.

Raising broods of young in human-made shelters, as well as in natural ones, has increased the populations of rough-winged swallows.

But the drainage pipes the swallows nest in can be dangerous to helpless youngsters. Heavy or prolonged rains can wash eggs or babies out of their cradles. But some parents try again to raise another brood to maturity.

Like all swallows, rough-wings are entertaining to watch as they catch flying insects from the air, uttering buzzy notes as they careen across the sky. Swiftly and gracefully, they zip through the air, swerving this way and that, and snapping up one insect after another until their stomachs and beaks are full.

Then they feed their young with the insects in their bills. Obviously, swallows are not only interesting, but also beneficial because they consume flies, mosquitos, gnats, and other pesky, dangerous insects.

Late in summer, most swallow species migrate south ahead of winter in large, noticeable flocks. But rough-wings do so in little, inconspicuous groups that are overlooked. Rough-wings just disappear.

The intriguing rough-winged swallows are entertaining to watch feeding. They are also adaptable, and some nesting pairs take advantage of built structures to raise young. They are another successful species in the midst of human-made habitats and activities.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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