From the savannas and forests of Africa, to the towns and cities of the UK – and back again – swifts make one of nature’s most incredible migration journeys. Follow one swift on her long adventure and discover the threats swifts, and other wildlife, face on the way. Threats that you can help tackle in some very simple ways.
The swift is a medium-sized aerial bird, which is a superb flyer. Sleeping, eating, bathing and even mating on the wing, swifts rarely touch the ground. They are also the fastest birds in level flight, with an impressive top speed of 69mph.
Swifts are plain sooty brown, with a white throat, but in flight against the sky they appear black. They have long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. Swifts are summer visitors, breeding across the UK, but are most numerous in the south and east. Spending their winters in Africa, swifts migrate 3,400 miles twice a year, stopping off to refuel in places like Portugal and France along the way.
After a long flight back from their summer in Africa, swifts have one thing on their minds - to mate. Swifts pair for life, returning to the same site each year for a little nest renovation before laying and incubating their eggs. They like to live in houses and churches, squeezing through tiny gaps to nest inside roofs. But as more old buildings are renovated and gaps in soffits closed up, swift nest sites are fast disappearing. This, in part, has resulted in swifts being added to the Red list in the 2021 UK Conservation Status Report.
Red is the highest conservation priority, with species on this list needing urgent action. Species on this list, such as swifts, are globally threatened, with big declines in breeding populations and ranges. That’s why swifts urgently need our help. By installing a swift brick in a wall, or putting up a nestbox, you could give a swift a place to rest and raise a family.
What they eat:
Flying insects and airborne spiders.
- UK breeding:
- 59,000 pairs
Swifts, swallows and martins often get confused for one another, but it's easier than you might think to tell them apart.
Swifts are dark, sooty brown all over, but often look black against the sky. If you get a good look, you might see their pale throat. The wings are long and narrow, with a tail that is slightly forked, but not as much as a swallow's. Swifts have a piercing, screaming call, but they aren't noisy at the nest.
Swifts nest in holes - often inside old buildings or sometimes in specially-designed swift nestboxes - so you'll never see them building a nest outside. In fact, if you can see an obvious nest, it's definitely not a swift! You'll see swifts flying low and fast around buildings, screaming loudly, or perhaps swooping fast into a little crevice in a building to their nests. You won't see them perching on telegraph wires or fences; they have tiny feet and legs and can hardly walk!
Swallows have dark, glossy blue backs, wings and heads, with a reddish patch under the chin. Their long, forked tails are distinctive. Swallows have a twittering song, which they give from a perch on a fence or building, or while they're flying. You can often see swallows perching on wires, especially around migration time, when they gather in flocks.
Like swifts, house martins often live in built-up areas. They build their nests under the eaves of houses. House martins have glossy blue upperparts, similar to a swallow, but the white rump is distinctive. Their tail is also forked, but much shorter than a swallow's. Their call is a sharp 'jik, jik' with some twittering. Like swifts, swallows and sand martins, you could see them over any lake or river, flying around to catch insects.
Sand martins are similar in shape to house martins. Their backs and wings are brown - perhaps a bit like a swift - but their underside is white with a brown breast-band. As the name suggests, sand martins make burrows in sandy river banks or even heaps of sand at quarries!