Cliff Swallow vs Barn Swallow: Spot the Differences

Learn how to look for the differences between a cliff swallow vs a barn swallow, two similar birds that are often mistaken for each other.

How to Identify a Cliff Swallow vs a Barn Swallow

cliff swallowsCourtesy Anna Smith
Cliff swallows gathering mud to build their nests

Cliff swallows and barn swallows are both beautiful birds that are commonly confused for each other. Both swallows build mud nests on buildings and bridges. Learn more about swallows’ nests and nesting habits. When perched, both birds show reddish brown throats and steel-blue backs. For more help with telling these similar species apart, use these helpful tips to separate a cliff swallow vs a barn swallow.

Learn about 8 types of swallows found in North America.

Tail Shape

Flying Barn SwallowElizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images
Barn swallows have long forked tails

Their tail shape is what separates cliff swallows and barn swallows in flight. The barn swallow has a long forked tail with white spots, while the cliff swallow’s tail is short. 

Learn how to identify and attract a tree swallow.

Forehead

Barn swallowBob Kothenbeutel
Barn swallows always have a reddish brown forehead

Another thing to look at is the foreheads on both birds. A cliff swallow’s forehead can be white or brown, but a barn swallow’s forehead is always reddish brown.

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Plumage

Cliff swallowBob Kothenbeutel
Cliff swallows have a pale collar on the neck and a lighter colored forehead

Finally, check out the coloring. Look for the cliff swallow’s pale buff-colored lower back and rump, and pale collar across the back of the neck. The barn swallow’s back is solidly dark blue, from head to tail.

Next, learn how to tell the difference between a downy vs hairy woodpecker and a house finch vs purple finch.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.