Stelgidopteryx serripennis [Rough-winged
Contributed by Edward von Siebold Dingle
[Published in 1942:
Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin
The rough-winged swallow was discovered by John James Audubon
in Louisiana, but the description of the bird in his
"Ornithological Biography" is based rather on specimens
collected many years later at Charleston, S. C., which city is,
therefore, the type locality. Audubon's (1838) description of his
first meeting with this swallow is as follows:
On the afternoon of the 20th of October 1819, I was walking
along the shores of a
forest-margined lake, a few miles from Bayou Sara, in
pursuit of some Ibises, when I observed a flock of small Swallows
bearing so great a resemblance to our common Sand Martin, that I
at first paid little attention to them. The Ibises proving too
wild to be approached, I relinquished the pursuit, and being
fatigued by a long day's exertion, I leaned against a tree, and
gazed on the Swallows, wishing that I could travel with as much
ease and rapidity as they, and thus return to my family as readily
as they could to their winter quarters. How it happened I cannot
now recollect, but I thought of shooting some of them, perhaps to
see how expert I might prove on other occasions. Off went a shot,
and down came one of the birds, which my dog brought to me between
his lips. Another, a third, a fourth, and at last a fifth were
procured. The ever continuing desire of comparing one bird with
another led me to take them up. I thought them rather large, and
therefore placed them in my bag, and proceeded slowly toward the
plantation of William Perry, Esq., with whom I had for a time
taken up my residence.
The naturalist examined his specimens carefully and saw that
they were different birds from the sand martin, or bank swallow,
but he continues. "At this time my observations went no
Then, "about two years ago, my friend the Rev. John
Bachman, sent me four Swallow's eggs accompanied with a letter, in
which was the following notice--'Two pairs of Swallows resembling
the Sand Martin, have built their nests for two years in
succession in the walls of an unfinished brick house at
Charleston, in the holes where the scaffolding had been placed. It
is believed here that there are two species of these birds.' . . .
"I have now in my possession one pair of these Swallows
procured by myself in South Carolina during my last visit to that
The roughwing enjoys a very extended range in the Western
Hemisphere. Essentially a bird of the Austral Zone, it does not
hesitate to establish itself in mountainous country thousands of
feet above sea level. According to Miller (1930) the bird breeds
in the heart of the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, at about
2,000 feet; in western North Carolina Brewster (1886) found it up
to 2,500 feet. James B. Dixon says that in California it breeds
from sea level up to 6,500 feet. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale
(1930) report specimens collected at Red Rock P. O., Calif., at an
elevation of 5,300 feet; also, birds observed at Petes Valley,
4,500 feet; Secret Valley, 4,500 feet; and Jones, 5,400 feet.
This bird, also locally known as the sand, or gully, martin, is
rather solitary in habits and usually does not congregate during
the breeding season, as does its near relative the bank swallow.
However, as Dawson (1923) says, "favorable conditions may
attract several pairs to a given spot, as a gravel pit, but when
together they are little given to community functions."
Courtship.--Grinnell and Storer
(1924) write: "From time to time the males were seen in
pursuit of the females and, while so engaged, to make rather
striking use of their seemingly plain garb. They would spread the
long white feathers (under tail coverts) at the lower base of the
tail until they curled up along either side of the otherwise
brownish tail. The effect produced was of white outer tail
feathers, such as those of the junco or pipit. Males can by means
of this trick be distinguished from the females at a distance of
fully 50 yards. An examination of specimens in hand reveals the
fact that the under tail coverts of the males are broader and
longer than those of the females."
Nesting.--Burrows, excavated in
precipitous banks of clay, sand, or gravel by the birds
themselves, are the usual nesting sites of the roughwing. The
length of the burrow depends, as H. H. Bailey (1913) says,
"much on the character of the soil in which it is started.
Weather conditions also make a moist or hard soil for them to work
in." Minimum depth of burrow is about 9 inches; and, in these
shallow excavations, the nest can be sometimes seen from the
outside. The greater number of tunnels, however, are long enough
to keep the nest from view and protect it from driving rains.
Under ideal working conditions, tunnels 4 and 5 feet long are
often excavated, sometimes reaching even a distance of 6 feet.
Bailey further says: "The height of the nesting cavity in
the bank also varies greatly, the nature of the soil strata
affecting the drilling of the hole, which is made by the birds
using their feet to scratch with, and push the dirt backward out
of the tunnel. Unlike the kingfisher, their beaks play a secondary
part in the drilling of their home, so they usually select a place
in the soft strata where the roof will be the under side of a hard
strata of soil, and so eliminate the chances of a cave-in.
Dawson (1923) writes that "in open country, where the
cover is scarce but the food supply attractive" he found them
nesting "along irrigating ditches with banks not over two
feet high." Weydemeyer (1933) found nests in Montana in banks
1 to 50 feet up.
This swallow is an excellent example of a species that can
readily adapt itself to conditions and utilize any kind of cavity
for the reception of its nest. It builds in holes in masonry,
sides of wooden buildings, adobe walls, quarries and caves;
crannies and ledges under bridges, culverts, and wharfs; and
gutters, drainpipes, and sewerpipes. Deserted burrows of the
kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) also are frequently used,
and in the West holes of ground squirrels and other small mammals.
According to Tyler (1913), these holes are thoroughly renovated
before occupancy "as is evidenced by the small mounds of
dust, leaves and trash that are to be seen below the entrances to
A nesting site near the village of Mount Pleasant, S. C., used
occasionally by rough-winged swallows was in the end of a hole in
a bank of burnt oyster shell--location of an antebellum lime kiln
facing Copahee Sound. A round piece of wood had been buried in the
lime, and when it decayed it left a tunnel 3 inches wide and
several feet deep. The late Arthur T. Wayne first showed it to me.
He related that, on one occasion, upon his approach, the bird left
the hole and was immediately pursued closely by a sharp-shinned
hawk (Accipiter velox). It eluded its pursuer, however, and
dived back into the hole, where it remained.
Howell (1924) writes: "A most remarkable site selected by
one or more pairs of these birds for their nest was on a buttress
beneath the deck of a transfer steamboat which made daily trips on
the Tennessee River from Guntersville to Hobbs Island, a distance
of 24 miles, leaving at 10 a.m. and returning at 6:00 p.m. The
birds, of course, followed the boat all the way to feed their
young. A nest examined on the boat June 19, 1913, contained
Hollow trees, it seems, are rarely used, but Eifrig (1919)
says: "June 10, 1915, I saw a pair. . . nesting in a dead
cottonwood on the top of a dune at Millers. . . . The female
looked out of the hole and the male perched as close by as he
could." Observers agree that the entrance hole of the
roughwing's tunnel differs from that of the bank swallow; S. F.
Rathbun says: "Quickly I detected the difference that existed
in the shape of the entrance of the nesting tunnel used by the
rough-winged swallow, by contrast with that of the bank swallow;
for in the case of the former the shape of the entrance was
elliptical, sometimes much so; it was larger and appeared
carelessly made. But the bank swallow would make the entrance more
circular, especially if the digging was easy; it was decidedly
smaller, neater in its outline. And a person could readily see
these differences even when some distance from the bank."
Most of the birds that nest in cavities, tunnels, or crevices
build either no nest at all or one of indifferent construction;
the roughwinged swallow is no exception. S. S. Dickey's
description of the nests as "loose, crude foundations"
is a good one.
The bulk of the nest depends largely on the size of the cavity
that holds it. Nests I have taken from sand banks along the South
Carolina coast are 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches thick and are composed of
grasses and rootlets.
A nest collected by J. F. Freeman from a timber under a wharf,
where there was plenty of room, is a rather bulky affair, built on
a foundation of large chips and pieces of bark deposited during
construction of the wharf. The nest proper is made of grasses and
a few leaves of live oak (Quercus virginiana) and is lined
with fine grasses. The distance from the top of the nest to the
beam is 5 inches.
According to locality various materials are used, as grasses,
pine needles, straw, weeds, roots, and, as Dickey says,
"shells of chicken eggs and now and then bud scales,
panicles, seed tops, petals of such flowers as dogwood (Cornus
florida), Carices, and Juncus. Into their composition
go pieces of deciduous leaves and petioles, notably those of the
black willow (Salix nigra) and heart leaf willow (Salix
cordata). A number of nests curiously contained moist horse
dung; we wonder why. Perhaps the vile smell tends to ward off
R. F. Mason, Jr., reports the wide use of holly leaves in
Maryland. In coastal Virginia H. H. Bailey says that seaweed is
largely used in nest construction.
In Florida, according to Howell (1932), nests are made of dried
rootlets, grass, weed stems, and a few dried beans and are lined
with dried or partly burnt grass.
Dickey writes: "Curiously, the parents supply broods daily
with beds of fresh green leaves of the common locust (Robinia
pseudoacacia). Soiled leaves are removed, with the dung."
A departure from the usual type of nest construction is
described by Goss (1886), who says: "Nest in holes in banks
of streams, constructed of the same material as the Barn
Swallow." He describes the nest of the latter bird as
"constructed of layers of mud and grasses, and lined with
fine grasses and downy feathers."
"In the vicinity of Fortine, Mont.," says Weydemeyer
(1933), "I have been able to determine the stage of nesting,
at some time during the season, shown by thirty-four nests of the
Rough-winged Swallow. . . . I give below the range of dates, for
different stages of nesting, which these records show. Nest under
construction: May 8, 1931, to June 15, 1929. Eggs (seven nests),
June 14, 1928, to July 6, 1923."
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The
rough-winged swallow lays anywhere from four to eight eggs to a
set, but the set usually consists of six or seven eggs; thus the
sets will average larger than those laid by the bank swallow. They
are more elongated, as a rule, than the eggs of other swallows,
usually elliptical-ovate. They are somewhat glossy, pure white,
The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.3 by 13.2 millimeters;
the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.6 by 14.7,
17.3 by 15.0, 16.5 by 12.7, and 17.8 by 12.2
Young.--A. F. Skutch says that the
female incubates the eggs for 16
days, while Dickey gives 12 days. Apparently the male occasionally
helps his mate with incubation duties, and Blake (1907) mentions a
nest under his observation in Vermont where the birds took turns
at sitting on the eggs.
Dickey says: "The young at first are mere weak infants,
gray and yellow, with the blood vessels and organs showing
somewhat through their skins. They are coated with streaks of gray
down. They develop rapidly. Within one week they assume somewhat
the aspect and plumage of the adults. When they are ready to leave
the nest, at the lapse of 12 days, they are pale brown but cannot
well be differentiated from the adults while on the wing. I went
to the trouble to collect and examine young just out of the nests.
Superficially their forms seemed more like bank swallows than like
their adult parents."
Skutch continues: "When 13 days old the nestlings were
well feathered, but they remained in the burrow a full week
longer, gaining strength to fly." Thus, he considers the
nestling period to be 20 or 21 days. Weydemeyer (1933), out of a
total of 34 nests under observation, gives the following dates of
young in nest: June 8, 1921, to July 9, 1928. In nine other nests,
the young left the nest by July 22, 1931, to July 29, 1930.
The roughwing raises one brood during the season.
Plumages.--At the time of leaving
the nest the young birds are similar to their parents in size,
feathering, and length of wing and tail, but the first primary
lacks the roughness of the adult feather; indeed, it is probable
that nearly a year passes before the young birds acquire this saw
edge that gives them their name. Also, the plumage is tinged with
rufous or cinnamon, especially on the throat and upper breast; the
wing coverts and tertials are margined with the same ruddy tint.
Dwight (1900) says: "First winter plumage acquired by a
complete postjuvenal moult after the birds have migrated southward
in September, or very likely while they move leisurely along in
The first nuptial plumage is apparently acquired by wear.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt after they have migrated
southward, mainly in September or later. The sexes are alike in
Food.--Howell (1924) says: "The
food of the rough-winged swallow consists principally of insects,
with a few spiders. Flies composed nearly one-third (32.89 per
cent) of the total. Ants and other Hymenoptera are extensively
eaten, and bugs to a lesser extent. Beetles amounted to nearly 15
per cent of the food and included the cotton-boll weevil, alfalfa
weevil, rice weevils and flea beetles. A few moths, caterpillars,
dragonflies, Mayflies, and an occasional grasshopper make up the
remainder of this bird's food."
Behavior.--In the field the roughwing
appears as a sober-colored little bird, plain grayish brown above
and lighter below. At a distance it can easily be confused with
the bank swallow, but when the latter bird sweeps over the
observer the breast band is readily detected. If the two birds are
seen together, the larger size of serripennis and its more
brownish appearance are at once apparent.
Lynds Jones (1912) says: "The more deliberate flight of
the Rough Wing as compared with the Bank was always noticeable.
The flight also tended to be more straight-away, with fewer abrupt
turnings. The Rough-Wing gives one the feeling of great reserves
Theed Pearse mentions that the "flight differs from other
species of swallow, stroke of wing being higher."
When its nest is approached the bird glides out and is soon
joined by its mate; then the two usually wheel back and forth at a
short distance away. If bare branches or telegraph wires happen to
be near at hand the birds will perch upon them and wait for the
intruder to go.
Dickey writes that the "parent, not seemingly uneasy,
tended to hover half-concealed behind a screen of black willows,
200 feet away. It would, however, glide out, to see what was
taking place, then disappear. In describing a pair of breeding
swallows, Brewster (1907) writes: "Once they alighted on a
large, flat-topped boulder at the water's edge where they moved
about by a succession of short, quick runs, reminding me of
Semipalmated Plover feeding on a sand beach. I have never before
seen Swallows of any kind move so quickly by the aid of their feet
Henshaw (1875) says that on the Provo River, Utah, "they
roost in large numbers upon the dead bushes along the banks. So
numerous are they and so closely do they sit huddled together that
six individuals were secured at a single shot."
Voice.--The roughwing is, generally
speaking, a silent bird; its notes, rather weak and inaudible at a
distance, are described as "harsh" or
"squeaky" by observers.
Dickey writes: "They give vent to a kind of rasping
squeak, difficult to describe in mere words. The exclamations are
vented while the species glides upstream or when it is approached
near the nest; quiz-z-z-zeep; quiz-z-z-zeep is what it
sounds like." Cooper (1870) writes: "They have only a
faint twittering note when flying."
Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) refer to the call of the
roughwing as "their sputtery notes, pssrt, pssrt."
Enemies.--The rough-winged swallow
does not appear to be greatly victimized by predatory birds and
mammals; strong powers of flight, more or less inaccessible
nesting sites, and generally solitary habits combine to keep it
out of danger.
H. H. Bailey (1913) says: "The mortality in this section
is great, their chief enemy being the black snake."
Probably the greatest cause of destruction to eggs and young is
the flooding of the burrows by spring tides and river freshets.
According to Wayne (1910) this condition is quite prevalent in the
flat, sandy coastal country of the Southeast. It also often
happens elsewhere, owing to the fact that, while this swallow
usually burrows near the top of the bank, it often excavates
nearer the base. In building under bridges and culverts the bird
sometimes places its nest so near the water that even a slight
rise would engulf it. Dickey says: "From potholes in
sandstone cliffs near Worely, Monongalia County, W. Va., I have
known anglers to extract the young of rough-winged swallows.
These, they contended, proved to be excellent bait in bass fishing
in local creeks."
Peters (1936) lists specimens of this swallow from Maryland and
Virginia as being found infected with the mites Liponyssus sylviarum
and Atricholaelaps sp.
Without positive proof I believe that the common sand crab (Ocypode
albicans) might, to a limited extent, prey on eggs and
nestlings of the roughwing. This crustacean abounds on the south
Atlantic coast, excavating its burrows in sand hills and the bases
of sand banks, as do the swallows. It causes much damage by
burrowing into turtle nests on the Carolina coast and consuming
the eggs. It is ever on the alert for anything edible that the
waves might bring ashore. Terns and shearwaters washed up after
hurricanes are quickly ruined as specimens, as I have several
times sorrowfully experienced.
Winter.--While this swallow is
highly migratory and the great majority of individuals winter
south of the United States, records from five states designate it
as a winter visitant within our borders. It is possible that some
of the so-called spring arrivals are birds that have wintered in
the neighborhood. Wayne (1910) says: "The birds of this
species which winter along the coast, generally, if not
invariably, confine themselves to large bodies of water adjacent
to wooded lands."
Griscom (1932) says that "the Rough-winged Swallow is a
common winter visitor to the whole of Guatemala, except the
Pacific coast." He quotes from Mr. Anthony's notes as
follows: "Common during the winter months to about 8000 feet
altitude. The first were noted at Progreso about September 8, with
mixed flocks of Cliff and Barn Swallows. A considerable flight of
these species appeared at this station on the above date and
hundreds were seen along the telegraph wires for a day or two,
when they became much less common but not rare until the following
May. In the altitudes, Stelgidopteryx is apt to be seen
with Tachycineta which is equally common."
Northern Rough-winged Swallow*
Contributed by Edward von
*Original Source: Bent,
Arthur Cleveland. 1942. Smithsonian Institution United
States National Museum Bulletin 179: 424-433. United States
Government Printing Office
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