Swallows of Illinois (7 Species to know)

Swallows are fast moving aerial insectivores that move quickly and catch prey on the fly. They have long wings and are characterized by their acrobatic movements. There are eight different swallow species that live across the United States and seven of them can be found in Illinois with six being common and one being extremely rare. Contained in this article is information on how to identify each one, along with additional information on their lifestyle and habits.

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow (Charles Gates – Photo)
Identification

Bank Swallows have a grayish brown back, head, and wings. They have a white underside and throat separated by a grayish brown chest band and stripe going from this band to the underside. 

Range

Bank Swallows winter in South America and Western Mexico. They migrate north in spring spreading across the United States and breeding in the Central and Northern United States and the majority of Canada and Alaska with the exception of the most Northern parts.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Bank Swallows feed on flying insects and will occasionally scoop insects from the surface of the water. This species will forage solo or in groups. 

Where to Find This Bird

Bank Swallows typically live in areas near water such as riverbanks, and coastlines. The easiest way to find this species is to locate a nesting colony that will sometimes consist of thousands of birds. They will build nests in natural places such as bluffs and cliffsides as well as manmade structures such as quarries.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Identification

Barn Swallows have a navy blue back and head with grayish blue tail and wings. They have Reddish orange faces, lighter orange undersides, and light orange undertails. They have longer feathers on the outside of their tails giving them a forked appearance.

Range

Barn Swallows winter in South America and Central America, then fly North into Mexico, the United and Southern Canada. Bran Swallows do make it as far North as Southern Alaska and generally extend more North in the Western portion of Canada than the Eastern.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Barn Swallows eat insects that they typically catch in flight. They also land on the ground and ingest small pebbles and other things that have vitamins and minerals in them such as calcium.

Where to Find This Bird

Barn Swallows are extremely widespread and can be found across pretty much the entire United States in summer, They are common over meadows and other open spaces in addition to places near water. Barn Swallows will often use structures such as barns and bridges to build there nests on. These types of structures are also good places to look for this species.

Cave Swallow (Rare)

Cave Swallow (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Identification

Cave Swallows have a dark blue back, dark blue top of the head, gray wings, an orangey face, and a lighter underside. They also have a patch of orange just above their bill and orange on the rump. These swallows have a squared off tail that is visible in flight.

Range

Cave Swallows can be found year-round in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. In summer they migrate to their nesting locations. Some of these locations include parts of Southern Florida, Texas, and New Mexico.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Cave Swallows do all of their hunting in flight, typically feeding on all different kinds of insects. They will also drink water while flying, swooping low and taking drinks from the surface. These birds forage in loose flocks similar to many other swallow species and in fact, sometimes will associate with other swallow species while hunting as well.

Where to Find This Bird

As their name would suggest, Cave Swallows can be found around caves and other cave-like structures such as bridges, and large culverts. One surefire place to go in order to see this species is Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico where they are abundant and can be seen foraging around the mouth of the cave.

Cave Swallows are extremely rare in Illinois but have been found before during fall migration.

Cliff Swallow

Cliff Swallow (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Identification

Cliff Swallows have dark blue backs and heads with dark gray wings, and a dark gray tail. They have a reddish orange face, a light orange colored rump, a light underside, and a distinctive white marking just above the bill. These swallows have squared off tails which can be useful in differentiating them from the similarly colored Barn Swallow.

Range

Cliff Swallows spend the winter in South America. In spring, they travel north to Mexico, the United States, and Canada where they breed. In the United States, Cliff Swallows summer in most states with the exception of some states in the Southeast.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Cliff Swallows eat insects that they catch out of the air. Some types of insects they will consume are flying ants, bees, wasps, flies, and crickets, but they will eat many other types of flying invertebrates as well.

Where to Find This Bird

Cliff Swallows can be seen soaring and foraging over open areas in addition to places like canyons, rivers, and lakes. These swallows are usually found together but can sometimes be found in extremely large numbers.

Cliff Swallows can be easy to see during their breeding months provided you are aware of a nesting site. Some areas to keep an eye on are bridges, tall buildings, and cliff sides

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Identification

Northern Rough-winged Swallows have a brown, back, wings, head, and tail, They have a lighter colored underside with a brownish gray wash over the chest. They have a short squared off tail.

Range

Northern Rough-winged Swallows winter in Central America, parts of Mexico, and the Southern part of Florida. In summer they move into every state in the continental US and parts of Southern Canada.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Northern Rough-winged Swallows feed on flying insects and have been known to take insects out of the air or off of the waters surface. They tend to fly lower over the water than other swallow species.

Where to Find This Bird

Northern Rough-winged Swallows can be found in areas with water such as lakes, rivers, and streams. They often forage in groups and are quite noticeable as they fly over the water. They are common and widespread in the spring and summer throughout most of the United States.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin (Male, left – Female, right)
Identification

Purple Martins are large members of the swallow family. Adult males are a shiny bluish purple color with darker colored wings and tails. Female and immature birds have patches of the same bluish purple color on their head and backs, but their underside and parts of their neck and forehead are a light gray to tan color.

Range

Purple Martins winter in Central and Northern South America and make their way north in spring. They spend the spring and summer in the Eastern United States as well as some select parts of the Western United States including the Pacific Coast.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Purple Martins eat insects that they catch in mid air. This species will also eat pebbles to help grind up and digest food.

Where to Find This Bird

The easiest way to find Purple Martins is to go to places where Purple Martin houses have been put up. These nesting sites usually look something like an apartment complex. If Purple Martins have taken up residence in these nest boxes they can be seen flying around or perching just outside the openings.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow
Identification

Tree Swallows have a shiny blue colored back and head, with a white throat and underside. They have squared off tails and a slight black mask over their eyes. Juvenile Tree Swallows are grayish colored before their adult blue color comes in. Immature females will be mostly gray with a white underside and some hints of blueish color starting to come in on the wings.

Range

Tree Swallows winter in Central America, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast of the United States in addition to some of the most Southwestern portions of the US. In spring, they move north into th Northern half of the United States and Canada all the way up to and including Alaska. There are some parts of the Southern United States in which Tree Swallows don’t breed but do pass through.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Tree Swallows eat mostly insects but will occasionally eat other small invertebrate prey items as well in addition to plant matter on occasion. This species ingests egg shells, small bones, and other high calcium food items to get the necessary vitamins and minerals.

Where to Find This Bird

Tree Swallows are extremely common and widespread in their breeding ranges. They can be seen in meadows and edge habitat as well as near marshes and other bodies of water. In places where tree swallows are nesting, they will sometimes dive-bomb people who get too close.

Summary

Swallows are fun birds to have around as their aerial acrobatics make them quite entertaining to watch. Knowing which species are expected in your area can be instrumental in identifying which one you’re looking at. Hopefully, this article has helped to answer some questions about the swallows of the Illinois.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like and a comment. Also be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding Youtube Channel.

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