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Hirundo spilodera (South African cliff-swallow) 

Familieswael [Afrikaans]; Sisampamema (generic term for swallows, martins, swifts and spinetails) [Kwangali]; Lefokotsane (generic term for swallow) [South Sotho]; Pęolwane, Phętla (generic terms for swifts, martins and swallows) [Tswana]; Kaapse klifzwaluw [Dutch]; Hirondelle sud-africaine [French]; Klippenschwalbe [German]; Andorinha-sul-africana [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Passeriformes  > Family: Hirundinidae

Hirundo spilodera (South African cliff-swallow) Hirundo spilodera (South African cliff-swallow) 

South African cliff-swallows. [photo Johan van Rensburg ©]

Bottom right: South African cliff swallow. [photo Johan van Rensburg ©]

Distribution and habitat

The non-breeding season is mainly spent in western DRC, flying to South Africa for the breeding season. It also has localised breeding populations in eastern Zimbabwe, Namibia and possibly south-eastern Botswana, with other records from Botswana and Namibia probably just stop off points on the way to the colonies. In South Africa it is common in the Free State Province, North-West Province, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, northern KZN, Eastern Cape and southern Northern Province. It generally prefers grassland, open savanna and Karoo.

Distribution of South African cliff-swallow in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

  • Predators of the chicks
  • Parasites (all only occurring on this species)
    • Ornithomya inocellata (fly)
    • Xenopsylla trispinis (flea)
    • Ornithodoros peringueyi (tick)

Movements and migrations

Intra-African breeding migrant, usually arriving from its DRC non-breeding grounds around early August, leaving around late April.


It eats a variety of aerial and flightless insects, usually foraging less 3 metres above ground. It often hovers above a bush to flush insects, or alternatively it catches prey disturbed by grass fires, ploughs, sheep, cattle, Helmeted guineafowl, Cattle egret or Common ostrich. It may also descend to the ground to feed on Northern harvester termites (Hodotermes mossambicus) and other insects. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


  • Monogamous, colonial nester, with colonies comprising 20 to upwards of 900 nests, often adjacent to Little swift colonies. Individual pairs defend a small territory around the nest entrance against other pairs.
  • The nest (see image below) is a gourd-shaped structure with a short entrance tunnel, built of mud pellets and lined wool, plant down and feathers. The entrance holes are packed tightly together, often often overlapping as in the photo. A horizontal ridge is often placed below the entrance which is lengthened as more nests are constructed. It is almost always placed in artificial site since the 1800s, such as in traditional huts and bridges but rarely on cliffs.
Hirundo spilodera (South African cliff-swallow)   
South African cliff-swallows at nest, Bloemfontein, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]  
  • Egg-laying season is from August-February, peaking around November-December.
  • It usually lays two separate clutches per breeding season, each consisting of 1-4, usually 2-3 eggs. They are incubated by both sexes for approximately 14-16 days, in shifts of 1-27 minutes.
  • The chicks are fed by both parents, leaving the nest after about 23-26 days, but it can be delayed if the chick is too heavy to fly. The juveniles return to the nest to roost for at least 4 days, often lured there by there with calling and coaxing by their parents.


Not threatened, in fact its range has benefited from the introduction of man-made nest sites, which it now uses almost exclusively.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 

  • Harrison, J.A., Allan, D.G., Underhill, L.G., Herremans, M., Tree. A.J., Parker, V. & Brown, C.J. (eds). 1997. The atlas of southern African birds. Vol. 2: Passerines. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.