Midwest Region
Conserving the Nature of America

Bank Swallows Returning Soon to Midwest - Help Protect Nesting Sites

April 23, 2012

Spring is coming to the Midwest and so are hundreds of thousands of birds looking for a summer home. Bank swallows - the smallest swallows in North America - are among them and they are actively looking for places to nest and raise their young. You can help protect these gregarious birds by keeping an eye out for their nesting colonies across the region.

Bank swallows live in low areas along rivers, streams or reservoirs. Their territories usually include vertical cliffs or banks. Though in the past, bank swallows were most commonly found around natural bluffs or eroding streamside banks, more and more often these swallows populate human-made sites, such as road banks, construction sites and landscaping borrow sites.

Social and always active, these small brown and white birds nest in colonies sometimes numbering in the thousands and quickly colonize these sites before landowners may realize. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, bank swallows and their nesting sites are protected as long as the sites remain active.

Bank swallows originally nested in the steep, sandy banks of rivers, but have adapted to using many different man-made excavations. Photo by B. Van Valen. Courtesy of bvanvalenphotography.com.

What Can You Do to Protect Bank Swallows?
The best solution is to avoid making the human-made sites attractive to nesting birds. This can be done by eliminating the cliff like vertical surfaces in suitable nesting soils by either rounding off the vertical face or in the case of smaller scale sites such as home foundations, by covering the exposed vertical surface with plastic tarps or other coverings. To avoid destruction of nests, eggs and newly hatched young, these remedial activities must be done before arrival of the birds and nest construction begins. The time to act is now.

Range and Habitat
Breed from Alaska across northern Canada south to California, Texas and Virginia. Spends winters in the tropics and the Old World. Preferred habitats include riverbanks, creeks, seashores and lakes.

Both Sexes

  • Length
    4.7 - 5.5 in
    12 - 14 cm

  • Wingspan
    9.8 - 11.4 in
    25 29 cm

  • Weight
    0.4 - 0.7 oz
    10 - 19 g

Interesting facts:

  • Most pairs in breeding colonies lay their eggs at the same time so that they will be feeding nestlings at the same time. This means there will be a large number of adults searching for swarms of insects, which makes it more likely they will find them.
  • The scientific name of the Bank Swallow, Riparia, means "riverbank"
  • This species originally nested in the steep, sandy banks of rivers but have adapted to using many different man-made excavations
  • A group of bank swallows are known collectively as a "foreclosure" of swallows

For more information about bank swallow remediation efforts or to report an active colony, please contact Special Agent Gary Jagodzinski at 608-783-8420.

This was a ditch for utility lines. The exposed vertical cliffs were artificially created by the excavation for utility lines.
The nests were destroyed along with all of the hatchlings, eggs, and adult birds that may have been in the burrows.
The company agreed to pay a $15,000 Migratory Bird Treaty Act citation. USFWS photo.

Last updated: June 5, 2017