E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Cypseloides niger (Gmelin, 1789)
Black Swift
Family: Apodidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

Photo of species

© Peter Candido  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #10785)

Distribution of Cypseloides niger in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

The plumage is wholly dark sooty-black, very slightly paler and tinged with grey or brown on the head, with a faint bluish gloss on the upperparts, wings, and tail. The forehead and forecrown feathers have narrow greyish-white margins, creating a scalloped appearance and the suggestion of a narrow pale line above the eye; the lores are also largely pale greyish-white, except for the area directly around the eye which is blackish. The underwing coverts sometimes have very narrow, faint pale greysih margins. Females tend to have some whitish feather edges on the lower belly and undertail coverts. The structure of the Black Swift is noticeably bulky, with very long but fairly broad-based sickle-shaped wings and a relatively short, shallowly notched (in males) to squared (in females) tail. The iris is dark, the tiny, inconspicuous bill is blackish, and the very small feet are dusky.

This plumage is held throughout the summer and fall of the first year, but is lost between November and April. It is very similar to the plumage of the adult, but is slightly duller with extensive whitish tips to most of the head and body feathers. The tail of both sexes is squared.

Total Length: 18-19 cm
Wingspan: 45-46 cm
Mass: 41-53 g

Source: Sibley (2000); Lowther and Collins (2002)



The Black Swift is noticeably larger and bulkier than other swift species in British Columbia, and is the only one that is entirely blackish (other species have either paler brown or white on the throat and breast). As a result, this species is relatively unmistakable within B.C.

This species is not as vocal as other species of swift in B.C., and calls relatively infrequently. It produces bursts of low, flat, twittering or clicking chips, often given in rapid succession and then slowing at the end. Also gives sharp cheet notes when approaching nesting sites at dusk.

Source: Sibley (2000); Lowther and Collins (2002); Garrett (2006)

Breeding Ecology

Courtship behaviours essentially unknown, although several observed behaviours are suspected to pertain to the formation of pair bonds. For example, single birds have been observed flying quickly and erratically while being pursued by 3-6 other birds which give a continuous chatter of soft, high-pitched sounds. Similarly, incidents in which one bird pursues another bird at high speeds with erratic flight style are also suspected of referring to the formation of pair bonds.

Nests are very rarely found anywhere within the species’ breeding range. This species typically nests in loose colonies, likely as a result of the highly localized distribution of suitable nesting sites. It nests exclusively on steep canyon walls and rock cliffs, usually near or behind waterfalls or adjacent to a seepage area that keeps microclimatic conditions humid and cool. Almost nothing known about the process of nest building, although individuals have been observed clinging to vertical cliff faces and gathering moss in their bills. Nest apparently built over a period of ~4 days during late May or early to mid-June, and pairs typically utilize the previous year’s nest when it is available. The nest itself is a small, rounded cup that is composed mostly or entirely of moss, occasionally incorporating minor amounts of other materials such as mud, fern tips, pine needles, small twigs, and (when breeding on coastal cliffs) seaweeds and algae. Most nests are placed on a shallow, sheltered ledge and are protected by an overhanging canopy of mosses or overhanging rock. The nest is 7.5-12.5 cm wide and 2-7.5 cm deep, with an internal cup ~9 cm across. Nests in B.C. have been documented at heights ranging from 3-4.5 m, although elsewhere in its range nests have been observed at heights up to 13.5 m (and likely occur higher on inaccessible cliff faces).

The single dull white egg is laid in mid- to late June and is incubated by both sexes for a period of 24-27 days before hatching. Eggs have been observed in B.C. in late June, but are likely present between mid-June and late July or early August. This species is single-brooded.

Nestlings are fully altricial and naked when hatched, with pinkish skin on the belly and bluish-black skin on the upperparts. The young are tended by both parents and remain in the nest for 45-49 days before feldging. The young greatly outgrow the nest by fledging, and just before leaving the nest often cling to the edge of the nest and exercise the wings. Although rarely observed in the province, nestlings apparently occur in B.C. between mid-July and early September.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Lowther and Collins (2002)
Foraging Ecology

Feeds exclusively on flying insects, especially winged ants when they are available. Foraging birds typically feed at very high altitudes above both forests and open habitats, but descend to much lower levels (<200 m) during rainy or cloudy conditions. Usually forages in groups or flocks (sometimes exceeding 100 individuals) during the breeding season and migration, with flocks ranging up to 40 km from nesting sites during feeding forays. Generally pursues insect prey in large arcs, often with a short ascent at the end made by rapid movement of the wings; also sometimes hangs motionless briefly (“stalls”) at the end of this short ascent. Migratory flocks in fall sometimes associate with large flocks of migrating Common Nighthawks to feed on hatches of winged ants over fields, woodlands, and townsites.

Source: Lowther and Collins (2002)


Breeds almost entirely on small ledges or in shallow crevices in steep rock faces and canyons, usually near or behind waterfalls. Foraging flocks range widely, however, and occur over all types of habitats (forests, towns, lakes, rivers, alpine meadows, mountain peaks). During clear weather, foraging individuals occur at very high altitudes and are not associated with any terrestrial or freshwater habitats.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Lowther and Collins (2002)


Global Range

Breeds locally in western Canada, the western United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Winter range largely unknown, but appears to be in northern regions of South America. Populations breeding in the Caribbean are largely resident.
BC Distribution

Generally uncommon across most of southern and central B.C., north to Prince George, the Bulkley Valle, and the Nass River, although it can be locally fairly common along the mainland coast north of Vancouver Island, on northern Vancouver Island, in the Coast Mountains, and in the Rocky Mountains and other mountain ranges of southeastern interior; rare in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region west of the Fraser River and east of the Coast Mountains. Also rare to uncommon, and very local, farther north in northwestern B.C. along the lower Stikine River. Apparently absent as a breeder from portions of the south-central interior east of the Okanagan Valley and west of the Columbia River. Although breeding is typically very local and does not occur throughout all of the species’ summer distribution, foraging flocks range widely and occur in areas (such as the northern Fraser Plateau) that are far from breeding sites.

Migration and Vagrancy
Uncommon spring and fall migrant throughout B.C., although it is locally fairly common along the coast during fall migration; large concentrations occur on southern Vancouver Island during fall migration.

Spring migrants begin to appear on the south coast in late April, but the majority move through this region between mid-May and early June. In the southern interior, the first migrants appear in mid-May, with the bulk of northward movement occurring between late May and mid-June. Fall migrants begin to depart in early to mid-August, and continue into mid- (interior) to late (south coast) September. Peak southward movements in the southern interior are between mid- to late August, while on the south coast peak movements occur between mid-August and early September. Late fall migrants have lingered on the coast into early October, with exceptiona l birds occurring on southern Vancouver Island as late as late November.

Casual north of normal summer range to Williston Lake in the north-central interior during July-August.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

The Black Swift is generally regarded as rare or uncommon in most areas that it occurs, but is more common in British Columbia than anywhere else throughout its distribution. It is not recognized as a species of conservation concern by either provincial (B.C. CDC [Conservation Data Centre]) or federal (COSEWIC [Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada]).


Three subspecies of Black Swift are recognized, although only C.n.borealis (Kennerly) occurs in North America (other subspecies are confined to Central America and the Caribbean). The Black Swift is very closely related to several other neotropic members of the genus Cypseloides, forming a superspecies with White-chested Swift (C.lemosi), Sooty Swift (C.fumigatus), and Rothschild’s Swift (C.rothschildsi).

Source: Lowther and Collins (2002)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS2S3BBlueE (May 2015)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2023-10-02 1:47:54 PM]
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