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bank swallow

Riparia riparia

What do they look like?

Bank swallows are smallish swallows with grayish-brown plumage on the head, back, wings, and tail. The flight feathers of the wings and tail have a slightly darker plumage color and there is a brown band that stretches across the breast. The chin, throat, belly, and undertail coverts are white. Juveniles may have buffy or whitish upperparts and a pink wash to the throat. Their tails are slightly notched. (Garrison, 1999)

Bank swallows can be confused with other, small brownish swallows. In North America this includes northern rough-winged swallows, which lack the breast band, and juvenile tree swallows, which are larger and differ in some plumage characteristics. Bank swallows may also be distinguished by their voice and their flight pattern: they hold their wings at a sharp angle in flight and use quick, flicking wing beats.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    10.2 to 18.8 g
    0.36 to 0.66 oz
  • Average length
    12 cm
    4.72 in

Where do they live?

Bank swallows, or sand martins as they are known in Europe and Asia, are one of the few small perching birds that are found throughout most of the world. They migrate between breeding and wintering ranges. In the summer, breeding season they are found where suitable nesting areas are (see Habitat). In the Americas, bank swallows breed throughout much of Alaska and Canada to the maritime provinces and south to the mid-Atlantic United States, throughout much of the Appalachian chain, along the Ohio River Valley to Missouri, west throughout much of Kansas, along the Rocky Mountain Chain into New Mexico, and in the mountainous regions of Utah, Nevada, and northeastern California. They also breed along the Rio Grande river in Texas and northern Mexico. In winter, American populations migrate to South America and along the western coastal slopes of Mexico. In Europe and Asia they winter in the north from the British Isles east to Siberia and south to north Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern China. They winter in the Arabian Peninsula and throughout Africa and Madagascar.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Their scientific name, Riparia riparia, means "river bank river bank" and refers to the preferred breeding habitat of bank swallows. They nest in small to large colonies in soft banks or bluffs along rivers, streams, and coastal areas. They prefer the eroding banks of slow, winding rivers and streams. They also use sandy coastal bluffs or cliffs. Man-made habitats are now also used, including gravel pits, quarries, and road cuts. They are found from sea level to 2100 meters elevation, but most are found in lowland river valleys and coastal areas. Important foraging habitats include wetlands, large bodies of water, grasslands, agricultural areas, and open woodlands. Bank swallows mainly migrate along large bodies of open water, such as marshes, coastal areas, estuaries, and large rivers. In winter they are seen mainly in open habitats with large bodies of water and grasslands, savannas, or agricultural areas.

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal
  • Range elevation
    0 to 2100 m
    0.00 to 6889.76 ft

How do they reproduce?

Bank swallows are monogamous and defend their nesting site together. Males begin to excavate burrows when they arrive on their breeding grounds. Once the nest burrow is about 30 cm long, they will begin to sit in the entrance and sing to attract females. They will also perform flight displays outside of the burrow entrance to attract females. The pair bond is formed as a female begins to sing in response to the male and perch near the burrow. Males and females will sleep together in the nest burrow. However, both sexes will occasionally try to mate with birds that are not their mates.

Once a mated pair is formed at a burrow, females begin building a nest in the burrow. Nests are lined with grass, feathers, and other fine materials. Females begin to lay eggs as early as April and into July. Most pairs attempt only 1 clutch per year, unless their first clutch is destroyed early in the nesting season. Females lay from 1 to 9, but usually 4 to 5, white eggs every day until the full clutch size is reached. Females begin incubating the clutch 1 to 2 days before all eggs are laid. Incubation takes 13 to 16 days and eggs hatch over the course of several days. Fledging occurs at around 20 days after hatching and parents continue to feed their young for 3 to 5 days after fledging. Once they become independent, young bank swallows gather in flocks of juveniles and adults. They are forced away from the burrow they were raised in by their parents, but often gather in small groups at other burrows to rest. Males and females can breed in their first year after hatching.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Bank swallows generally have 1 clutch yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Bank swallows breed during spring and summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 9
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    13 to 16 days
  • Average fledging age
    20 days
  • Range time to independence
    23 to 25 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Male and female bank swallows share in incubating young, although females do most incubation. Both parents sleep in the nest burrow at night. Young are naked and helpless at hatching and parents brood them for 7 to 10 days. Both parents feed the young and help to protect them from predators until they are 23 to 25 days old, a few days after they have left the nest burrow.

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

About 60% of bank swallows may die each year, with higher death rates in young bank swallows. Two bank swallows lived to 9 years old in the wild.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    9 (high) years

How do they behave?

Bank swallows are gregarious, living and breeding in colonies. Bank swallows that live in larger colonies are more successful at detecting and defending against predators, but they also have more parasites. Bank swallows are always very social, they preen each other, sunbathe, and roost in large groups. Bank swallows migrate fairly long distances, often in flocks with other swallows. They arrive on their breeding grounds in early spring and leave in late summer. On their winter range, bank swallow populations may range widely in search of food. They forage from early in the morning through dusk. Like most swallows, bank swallows are fast and agile in flight. Their flight is described as "fluttery," with rapid wing beats and short glides. Their wings are held bent in flight, unlike most other swallows. They will forcefully hit, and then bounce off of, the surface of water to drink, gather nesting material, grab an insect, or bathe themselves. Bank swallows are ungainly on the ground and are mainly seen perching or in flight.

Home Range

Nesting pairs defend only their nest burrow and the area immediately around the burrow. Home range sizes are not reported. (Garrison, 1999)

How do they communicate with each other?

Young bank swallows use a food-begging call and a signature call to their parents at the nest. Parents recognize the calls of their own offspring. Parents respond with a feeding call when they return to the nest to feed their young, the feeding call is described as a set of sweet notes. Contact calls are the most commonly used and are described as a raspy "tschr." Males also sing to advertise territories and attract females for mating. Males can sing at the nest and in flight. Songs sound like "cher-che-che-che," repeating until it sounds as if they are chattering. Bank swallows also use warning and alarm calls when they observe predators. Warning calls are given to colony-mates while alarm calls are directed at predators when they are being mobbed.

Males also perform display flights to attract females. (Garrison, 1999)

What do they eat?

Bank swallows eat almost exclusively insects that they catch in flight. They forage from dawn to dusk over bodies of water or large areas of short-growing vegetation, such as meadows, agricultural fields, or wetlands. They sometimes forage over forest canopies. Bank swallows drink in flight as well, by skimming the water surface with their lower bill. In one study of stomach contents, bank swallows ate 99.8% insects, with approximately 33.5% ants, bees, and wasps, 26.6% flies, 17.9% beetles, 10.5% mayflies, 8% bugs, 2.1% dragonflies, and 1.2% moths and butterflies.

  • Animal Foods
  • insects

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Bank swallows that live in larger colonies are better at detecting and defending against predators. They cooperate to mob predators that threaten their colony. Most predation is on nestlings and eggs in burrows. Snakes are important predators of nestlings, including gopher snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) and black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus). American kestrels (Falco sparverius) attempt to take flying adults and fledglings. Bank swallows have been observed deterring predation by blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) when they mob them.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Bank swallows are important predators of flying insects, especially where they concentrate around breeding colonies. European starlings and house sparrows may take over their burrows. Other sand and bank burrowing birds, such as kingfishers, barn owls, northern rough-winged swallows, and cliff swallows are tolerated by bank swallows. (Garrison, 1999)

Bank swallows that live in larger colonies suffer higher rates of flea infestation and nestlings with fleas had lower body masses than nestlings without fleas.

Species (or larger taxonomic groups) that are mutualists with this species
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • fleas (Ceratophyllus styx)
  • fleas (Ceratophyllus riparius)
  • fleas (Celsus celsus)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora splendida)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora braueri)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora hirundo)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora metallica)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora sialia)
  • blowflies (Protocalliphora chrysorrhoea)
  • mites (Liponyssus sylviarum)
  • mites (Atricholaelaps glasgowi)
  • lice (Myrsidea dissimilis)
  • feather lice (Mallophaga)
  • nematodes (Acuaria attenuata)

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of bank swallows on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Through their predation on flying insects, bank swallows can help to control populations of pest insects, such as mosquitoes and agricultural pests. (Garrison, 1999)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Bank swallows are widespread and population sizes are large. The IUCN considers them "least concern." However, local populations are impacted by loss of nesting habitat. In California they are listed as threatened, they are considered sensitive in Oregon, and a species of special concern in Kentucky. Bank swallows are fairly tolerant of human activities and will even nest in active quarries. (BirdLife International 2008, 2008; Garrison, 1999)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


active at dawn and dusk

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and the fresh and saltwater mixes


World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

uses sight to communicate


BirdLife International 2008, 2008. "Riparia riparia" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed April 01, 2009 at

Garrison, B. 1999. Riparia riparia. Birds of North America, 414: 1-20. Accessed March 30, 2009 at

Hoogland, J., P. Sherman. 1976. Advantages and disadvantages of bank swallow (Riparia riparia) coloniality. Ecological Monographs, 46: 33-58. Accessed March 30, 2009 at

Jones, G. 1986. Sexual chases in sand martins (Riparia riparia): cues for males to increase their reproductive success. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 19: 179-185.

NatureServe 2008, 2008. "Riparia riparia" (On-line). NatureServe Explorer 2008. Accessed March 30, 2009 at

Szep, T. 1994. Relationship between west African rainfall and the survival of central European Sand Martins Riparia riparia. Ibis, 137: 162 - 168.

Turner, A. 1982. Journal of Animal Ecology. Timing of laying by swallows (Hirundo rustica) and and sand martins (Riparia ripari), 51: 29-46.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Dewey, T. 2009. "Riparia riparia" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 21, 2014 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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