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Breeding by cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southern Arkansas.

The cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is identified easily, even in flight, by its square tail, orange rump, chestnut-colored throat, and pale forehead patch (Brown and Brown, 1995). It is a migratory species whose historic breeding range did not include the southeastern United States (Brown and Brown, 1995). With the construction of concrete bridges and dams, which have provided extralimital nesting sites (Erskine, 1979), new records have extended the known breeding range southward into Louisiana (Eyster, 1980; Viet and Petersen, 1993) and coastal states including Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida (Brown and Brown, 1995; Lewis and McNair, 1998). In Arkansas, early records of nesting by cliff swallows were limited to the Ozark Plateau (Baerg, 1931; James and Neal, 1986), but cliff swallows recently have been documented nesting as far south as the Arkansas River Valley in western and central Arkansas, the Red River drainage of southwestern Arkansas, and one locality (Union County) in south-central Arkansas (Stewart, 1976; James and Neal, 1986).

New records of distribution of Arkansas birds, since James and Neal (1986), are maintained in the Arkansas Audubon Society database ( Those records for cliff swallows all have been from southwestern Arkansas. In 1988, a new breeding colony of cliff swallows was reported in Little River County at Lake Millwood and, in 1991, nesting cliff swallows were reported in Hempstead County at Millwood Dam. Abridge over the Red River in Lafayette County was home to a nesting colony in 1996.

Recent reports have been sporadic, and the southern limits of the breeding range in Arkansas have not been examined since 1986, with the exception of a recent survey of bridge sites in southern Arkansas (Tumlison, 2007) that reported only the presence of durable nests. I undertook the present study to evaluate the current breeding range by direct observation of cliff swallows nesting in southern Arkansas. During March June 2007, I visited bridges along highways in southern Arkansas and re-examined known sites of former breeding colonies (Tumlison, 2007). Sites for the present study primarily were selected based on presence of [greater than or equal to]10 old nests. A large and relatively new bridge in Bradley County, which had no nest previously (Tumlison, 2007), was examined because the site is in a different drainage system (Saline River). My study was conducted during spring migration, to collect observations of presence and behavior of swallows when encountered.

Nesting cliff swallows were observed in 20 locations in 11 counties (Fig. 1). Photographs of the birds were taken at most locations (available from the author). It appears that cliff swallows presently have established a nesting population through most of southern Arkansas. Details of observations follow.


Ashley County--Ouachita River bridge on U.S. highway 82, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (T18S, R10W, Sec. 14). On 22 March 2007, ca. 100 cliff swallows were rebuilding old nests under the bridge, and on 5 May 2007 several hundred cliff swallows were present, many gathering mud along road ruts under the bridge. Also on 5 May, dozens of cliff swallows were at an overflow relief bridge ca. 1 km east of this site (T18S, R10W, Sec. 13).

Bradley County--Saline River at U.S. highway 278, east of Warren (T13S, R9W, Sec. 2-3). On 5 June 2007, 16 cliff swallows were flying around 13 nests. This site had been visited in search of old nests on 26 December 2006, but no nest of cliff swallows was present at that time. Thus, this observation reflects construction of all new nests and perhaps the first breeding at this eastern site.

Clark County--Ouachita River bridge on state highway 7 at Arkadelphia (T7S, R19W, Sec. 16). On 21 April 2007, a few dozen cliff swallows were gathering mud along the river bank under the bridge and adding it to nests located on the bridge. On 25 May 2007, a few nests were occupied on Saline Bayou on state highway 7 east of Arkadelphia (T7S, R19W, Sec. 16).

Howard County--Coleman Creek bridge on state highway 371 (T9S, R27W, Sec. 22-27). On 20 March 2007, three cliff swallows were flying after emerging from old nests.

Lafayette County--Red River bridge on U.S. highway 82 (T16S R25W, Sec. 18). On 22 March 2007, 13 cliff swallows were counted exiting old nests under the bridge. On the same date over the Red River on state highway 160, east of Doddridge (T19S, R27W, Sec. 22), hundreds of cliff swallows were foraging near and above the bridge, which supported hundreds of nests.

Miller County--Cliff swallows were at four bridges visited on 22 March 2007. On U.S. highway 71 over Sulphur River (T18S, R27W, Sec. 34), about a dozen birds were flying near the bridge. Two were exiting a nest at a U.S. highway 71 bridge for relief of Sulphur River (T19S, R27W, Sec. 3), and four were flying near the bridge on state highway 237 at Sulphur River Wildlife Management Area (Sec. 27/28, T17S, R28W). On the bridge for U.S. Highway 67 over the Red River (T13S, R26W, Sec. 20), eight cliff swallows were flying, and four were using old nests.

Nevada County--On 6 June 2007, two cliff swallows were flying around 14 nests on the bridge over the Little Missouri River at state highway 53 (THS, R20W, Sec. 3).

Ouachita County--0uachita River bridge on U.S. highway 79 near Camden (T13S, R17W, Sec. 24). On 6 May 2007, about a dozen cliff swallows were flying among a large number of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), and several cliff swallows were using the nests under the bridge. On 6 June 2007, about 30 cliff swallows were flying among dozens of nests that were occupied by young cliff swallows at White Oak Lake on state highway 387 (T12S, R19W, Sec. 29).

Pike County--On 22 July 2007, a single fledgling cliff swallow was in a nest under the state highway 26 bridge over Saline Creek (T8S, R24W, Sec. 8). Three adult birds also were flying among a group of barn swallows.

Sevier County--Cossatot River at state highway 24 (T9S, R30W, Sec. 20). On 20 March 2007, five cliff swallows were flying near the bridge, and four of them occupied old nests. Those birds foraged and returned to the nests several times, and on several occasions two birds were in the same nest.

Union County--Ouachita River bridge on U.S. highway 82, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (T18S, R10W, Sec. 14). On 5 May 2007, ca. 100 cliff swallows were constructing new nests and rebuilding old nests on the Union County side of the river. No bird had been found there

on 22 March, when they already were present on the Ashley County side of the river. Farther west of the river, about a dozen cliff swallows were at bridges over Deep Slough (T18S, R10W, Sec. 17) and Lapoile Creek (T18S, R10W, Sec. 18) on 4 May 2007.

Cliff swallows previously were known to nest in Howard, Little River, Sevier, and Union counties in southern Arkansas (James and Neal, 1986), and additional unpublished records from Hempstead and Lafayette counties are on file with the Arkansas Audubon Society. During the 2007 breeding season, I found new records of active nesting by cliff swallows in Ashley, Bradley, Clark, Miller, Nevada, Ouachita, and Pike counties, and continuing reproductive effort was seen in Howard, Lafayette, Sevier, and Union counties (Fig. 1).

Cliff swallows historically arrived in Arkansas as early as the last week of March, but most commonly during the first 2 weeks of April (James and Neal, 1986). First arrivals usually represent migrants on their way north to nesting locations. I found arrival as early as 20-22 March for Ashley, Howard, Lafayette, Miller, and Sevier counties. Cliff swallows stop to forage during their migration, but they are not considered to exhibit nesting behavior until they are entering nests, lunging at intruders, and forming pair bonds, which occurs with establishment of ownership of nests (Brown and Brown, 1995).

Using these behaviors as a guide, I witnessed nesting behavior as early as 22 March in Ashley County (cliff swallows occupied old nests, lunged at intruders, and demonstrated pair formation). A visit on 5 May revealed active construction of nests continuing at the site. Cliff swallows also occupied nests, sometimes as pairs, in Howard, Lafayette, Miller, and Sevier counties during 2022 March. Construction of nests was well underway in Clark County on 21 April. Previously, nesting activity in Arkansas was known to occur during the second one-half of April through July, and 25 April was the earliest recorded date (James and Neal, 1986).

My observations document that cliff swallows currently breed through most of southern Arkansas, and that breeding in the state now begins ca. 1 month earlier than historical records indicate. The ready availability of suitable anthropogenic nesting sites has enabled some cliff swallows to terminate migration earlier and at more southerly locations than was historically possible. Climatic conditions at those places are such that breeding can commence earlier than would be possible further to the north.

I thank H. Perez for providing the Spanish translation of the abstract.

Submitted 12 October 2007. Accepted 1 September 2008. Associate Editor was Gary D. Schnell.


BAERG, W. J. 1931. Birds of Arkansas. University of Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 258:1-197.

BROWN, C. R., AND M. B. BROWN. 1995. Cliff swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota). Birds of North America 149: 1-32.

ERSKINE, A. J. 1979. Man's influence on potential nesting sites and populations of swallows in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 93:371-377.

EYSTER, M. B. 1980. The nesting of cliff swallows. Louisiana Ornithological Society News 90:2-3.

JAMES, D. A., AND J. C. NEAL. 1986. Arkansas birds: their distribution and abundance. University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville.

LEWIS, T. E., AND D. B. McNAIR. 1998. Second breeding locality of cliff swallows in Florida. Florida Field Naturalist 26:117-121.

STEWART, J. R., JR. 1976. Central southern region. American Birds 30:965-969.

TUMLISON, R. 2007. A survey of nesting by cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) at highway bridges in southern Arkansas. Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 61:104-108.

VIET, R, AND W. PETERSEN. 1993. Breeding range expansion of the cliff swallow in Northwest Louisiana. Proceedings of the Louisiana Academy of Sciences 54:64.


Department of Biology, Henderson State University, Arkadelphia, AR 71999

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Author:Tumlison, Renn
Publication:Southwestern Naturalist
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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