Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)

Photo by Jack BartholmaiNorthern Rough-winged Swallow by Jack BartholmaiNorthern Rough-winged Swallow distribution map


Population Information

The Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for time period (1966-2005).

Life History

Habitat Selection

The Northern Rough-winged Swallows often occur in open habitats, predominately near rocky gorges and exposed banks (DeJong 1996). In Wisconsin, it frequently occurs near small streams with steep exposed banks (Robbins 1991), where it nests in artificial substrates including gutters, culverts, drainpipes, and holes in structures and in burrows along vertical banks. Burrows are located in clay, sand, or gravel banks and range from 20-200 cm deep. The Northern Rough-winged Swallow typically uses burrows excavated by kingfishers, Bank Swallows, and other species. It will nest singly or in loose colonies of 2-25 pairs (DeJong 1996).

Habitat Availability

Although the Northern Rough-winged Swallow has been recorded in every Wisconsin county, it is less common north of a line from Grantsburg to Oconto (Robbins 1991). The highest concentrations occur in west-central Wisconsin, likely due to an abundance of nesting sites afforded by the bluff geography (Damro 2006). Human activities that impede natural erosion of streamside banks may impact breeding habitat suitability. This species will readily use artificial structures for nesting in the absence of natural sites. However, burrow availability, both artificial and natural, appears to be a limiting factor for this species (DeJong 1996).

Population Concerns

Breeding Bird Survey data suggest a non-significant increase range-wide and a non-significant decline in Wisconsin (Sauer et al. 2005). However, accurate population estimates are difficult because of this species’ localized distribution and limited availability of nest sites (DeJong 1996). In Wisconsin it is considered a fairly common summer resident south and central and an uncommon summer resident north (Robbins 1991). During the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (1995-2000), observers confirmed breeding in approximately 29% of the surveyed quads (Damro 2006).

The direct loss of natural sites through flood control and bank stabilization projects may impact local populations. The lack of suitable nesting burrows also may be limiting populations (DeJong 1996). Little is known about threats on the wintering grounds.

Recommended Management

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is a poorly known species, thus management recommendations are difficult to formulate. Because this species may be limited by the availability of nesting burrows, the placement of artificial nest burrows in appropriate habitat may be one management strategy.  All natural sites with current or potential colonies should be identified and conserved in Wisconsin. Wherever possible, managers should consider maintaining natural cycles (i.e., flooding and erosion) in riparian ecosystems, which will benefit many riparian-associated species. However, public education on the importance of these natural processes is needed. Loose colonies located at quarries and other human-altered habitats would benefit from fewer disturbances at nesting sites.

Research Needs

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is not well-studied. More research on both its breeding and wintering ecology is needed. Studies investigating variations amongst eastern and western populations (e.g., molt, migration, breeding chronology, colony size) are warranted. More information is needed on this species’ ability and propensity to excavate burrows (DeJong 1996). In Wisconsin, important breeding sites should be identified.

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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