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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Black Swift - Cypseloides niger

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S1B

Agency Status
PIF: 2


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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Black Swift is the largest of the swift species north of Mexico but the least studied. This species nests exclusively on ledges or shallow caves on steep rock faces behind waterfalls and is unique among swifts in laying only one egg per clutch (Lowther and Collins 2002).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
They are over 7 inches in length and have wingspans up to 18 inches. As the name implies, Black Swifts are completely dark in appearance. A distinctly notched tail on the adult male is the only difference in appearance between the sexes. They have long, broad-based, and curved wings, similar to hummingbirds. The tail is square and often fanned. Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults, except for the small bands of white present across much of the underbody (neck, belly, and undertail coverts). The wingbeats are slow and shallow, often looking erratic in flight when foraging (Sibley 2014).

The coloration of Black Swifts distinguishes them from White-throated Swifts (Aeronautes saxatalis), which have broad white markings on the chin, neck, breast, and sides of the rump. Black Swifts are much larger, have longer tails and are darker than Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi). The same is true in comparison to Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica), which also barely overlaps in range with Black Swifts.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 144

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Little information regarding the migratory patterns of Black Swifts exists for Montana. Birds have been observed in migration as early as May and as late as August (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). All observations of migration or transitory behavior have occurred in the western part of the state, usually in areas where mountainous habitat exists including the Lolo Peak area in Missoula County, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Bison Range (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

Like other swifts, Black Swifts forage over open areas often over bodies of water, often at long distances from the nest (Collins and Peterson 1998). They nest behind or next to waterfalls on steep cliff faces (Lowther and Collins 2002). Nesting locations share the following characteristics: water, high relief, inaccessibility to predators, unobstructed flyways to and from the nest, and darkness (Lowther and Collins 2002).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Black Swifts feed on flying insects and arthropods, particularly winged ants. Swifts forage in the air, often at great heights, particularly in good weather. Apparently concentrate along low pressure weather systems, which may also concentrate aerial insects (Lowther and Collins 2002).

Suitable nest sites are limited; birds nest singly or semicolonially depending on availability of sites (Lowther and Collins 2002).

Reproductive Characteristics
The Black Swift has strong fidelity to nest sites, and new nests may be built directly atop previously used nests (Lowther and Collins 2002). The nest is a cup composed of mud, mosses and liverworts, pine needles, and twigs (Hunter and Baldwin 1962). A single egg is laid in June to July. Both parents visit the nest throughout the breeding season, but the division of incubation and brooding duties is unknown. The incubation period is long, at 26 days (range 22-32 days). The nestling phase averages 48 days (range 40-58 days; Gunn et al. 2012). Once fledged, it is assumed that young migrate with adults (Lowther and Collins 2002).

No active management currently is in place for Black Swifts in Montana, although decreases in water flow and increased recreational use in areas where Black Swifts nest, or are thought to nest, should be discouraged (Casey 2000). Additionally, reduced snow packs and earlier spring thaw and runoff could reduce stream flows.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Collins, C.T. and B.M. Peterson. 1998. Nocturnal chick provisioning by black swifts. Western Birds 29:227-228.
    • Davis, D. G. 1964. Black swifts nesting in a limestone cave in Colorado. Wilson Bulletin 76:295-296.
    • Foerster, K. S. and C. T. Collins. 1990. Breeding distribution of the black swift in southern California. Western Birds 21:1-9.
    • Gunn, C., K.M. Potter, and J.P. Beason. 2012. Nest microclimate at northern black swift colonies in Colorado, New Mexico, and California: temperature and relative humidity. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124:797-802.
    • Hunter, W. F. and P. H. Baldwin. 1962. Nesting of the black swift in Montana. Wilson Bulletin 74(4):409-416.
    • Knorr, O. A. 1961. The geographical and ecological distribution of the black swift in Colorado. Wilson Bulletin 73(2):155-170.
    • Knorr, O. A. and M. S. Knorr. 1989. The black swift in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. Southwest Naturalist 35:559-560.
    • Legg, K. 1956. A sea-cliff nest of the black swift. Condor 58:183-187.
    • Lowther, P. E., and C. T. Collins. 2002. Black Swift (Cypseloides niger). In The birds of North America, No. 676 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and American Ornithologists’ Union.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Michael, C. M. 1927. Black swift nesting in Yosemite National Park. Condor 29:89-97.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Stiles, F.G. and A.F. Skutch. 2003. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 511 pp.
    • Vrooman, A. G. 1901. Discovery of the egg of the black swift (Cypseloides niger borealis). Auk 18:394-395.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Altman, B. 2003. Inventorying Black Swift nesting populations at waterfalls in the Northern Pacific Rainforest Bird Conservation Region. American Bird Conservancy, Corvallis, OR.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Casey, D. 2004. Coordinated bird monitoring in Montana. Special species monitoring: Black Swift. Prepared for the Montana Bird Conservation Partnership and the University of Montana. American Bird Conservancy, Kalispell, MT..
    • Chantler, P. and G. Driessens. 1995. Swifts: A guide to the swifts and treeswifts of the world. Pica Press, Sussex, England. 237 pp.
    • Colorado Partners in Flight. 2000. Physiographic Region 62: Southern Rocky Mountains.
    • Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont.
    • Dobkin, D.S. 1994. Conservation and management of neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. Univ. Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 220 pp.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Hunter, W.F. and P.H. Baldwin. 1972. Black swift nest in Glacier National Park. The Murrelet 53(3):50-51.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Johnson, P.W. 1990. Black swift (Cypseloides niger) nesting in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. New Mexico Ornithological Society Bulletin. 18:13-15.
    • Knorr, O. A. 1993. Breeding of the Black Swift in the Great Basin. West. Birds 24(3): 197-198.
    • Knorr, O. A. 1993. Black Swift (Cypseloides niger) nesting site characteristics: Some new insights. Avocetta 17:139-140.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar’s Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Levad, R.G., K.M. Potter, C.W. Shultz, C. Gunn, and J.G Doerr. 2008. Distribution, abundance, and nest-site characteristics of black swifts in the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 120(2):331-338.
    • Marín, M. 1997. Some aspects of the breeding biology of the Black Swift. Wilson Bulletin 109:290-306.
    • Marks, J. 2004. Monitoring Black Swifts in Montana: 2004 Annual Report
    • Montana Bird Distribution Online Database. 2001. Helena, Montana, USA. April-September 2003.
    • R.G. Levad. 2010. The coolest bird: a natural history of the black swift and those who have pursued it. American Birding Association. 152 p. (
    • Schultz, C., and R. Levad. 2002. Black Swift survey protocol. San Juan National Forest and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Grand Junction, CO.
    • Sibley, C.G., and B. L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven. xxiv + 1111 pp.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Stiles, F.G. and A.J. Negret. 1994. The nonbreeding distribution of the Black Swift: A clue from Colombia and unsolved problems. The Condor 96(4): 1091-1094.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1932. The Black Swift in Glacier National Park. Condor 34:100.
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Black Swift — Cypseloides niger.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from