Swift, swallow or martin?

Swirling high in the blue skies, screeching wildly. Dark-winged creatures darting low over fields. Others chirruping softly as they flutter to and fro on the warm breeze. But which bird is it?

Swifts, swallows, house martins and sand martins are all summer migrants, flying in from Africa to raise their young and feast on insects snatched from the sky. Use our handy ID guide below and you’ll soon know your swifts from your swallows.

Swifts. Super high-fliers

Identification

  • Dark sooty brown
  • Can look black against the sky
  • Crescent-shaped wingspan
  • Short forked tail
  • Bullet-shaped, almost dinosaur-like head
  • You’ll often hear them before you see them – they make an unmistakeable, piercing, high-pitched “scream”

Flight

Swifts are high-fliers and extremely fast. No other bird can fly faster in level flight. They spend their lives in the air sleeping, mating and drinking on the wing and won’t land, avoiding coming anywhere near the ground. Though they sometimes cling to a high vertical surface.

Nesting

Swifts enter their nests via little slots leading into cavities within roofs, buildings or cliffs. They fly into these at speed, folding their wings on entry. Inside they use very little nesting material. No muddy cups for these guys!

Where to look

Swooping or gliding at high altitude. Mornings and evenings, they come lower down. And they’re particularly noisy and active around nesting colonies.

Helping swifts

Sadly, our swifts are struggling. In the UK, breeding numbers of swifts have dropped by 57% between 1995 and 2017. One way you can help swifts is by telling us about the swifts you see using Swift Mapper. It’s simple, quick, easy to do and could make all the difference.

Swallows. Graceful gliders

Identification

  • Distinctive long, forked tail with tail streamers
  • Red throat
  • White underside
  • Blueish sheen to the head and back
  • Swallows have longer wings than martins.

Flight

Swallows dart and glide, often low to the ground or at treetop height. They often tweet and chirrup from perches.

Nesting

They like barns, lean-tos and other outbuildings with dark nooks and crannies for nesting. Swallows usually look for a ledge or beam among roof timbers that are sheltered from the elements. There, they’ll build a cup-shaped nest of mud that’s difficult for predators to spot.

Where to look

Flying low to the ground over lowland fields and meadows, especially near lakes and rivers where there are lots of insects. Swallows will also perch on telephone wires or wire fencing, and land on wet mud to scoop some up for nest-building.

Helping swallows

You can encourage swallows to nest in your garage or outhouse by making sure there’s a small entrance for them to get in and by fixing a platform high inside the roof space.

House martins. Charming neighbours

Identification

  • Smaller than swifts or swallows
  • Pure white underside
  • Blue-black upper parts except for the white rump on its back
  • Shorter wings than swifts or swallows
  • Forked tail

Flight

House martins are most active in mornings and evenings. They zoom around at mid-height, usually in flocks, coming down low over the water and fluttering in and out of house eaves, chirruping softly.

Nesting

Like swallows, house martins collect mud to build cup-shaped nests, exploiting man-made buildings that mimic the cliffs where they used to nest. However (with the occasional exception), they go for the outside eaves rather than inside beams. Like swifts, house martins nest together in colonies, which can be dozens or even hundreds of birds. 

Where to look

Wetlands and lakeshore are a hotspot as house martins prey on flying insects often associated with wetlands. They hoover up midges, mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies as they swoop over the water.

Helping house martins

House martin young about to land between two adults on telephone wire to join gathering in preparation for migration

With numbers in decline, house martins need a helping hand. One way is to buy ready-made house martin cups and install them under your eaves.

Sand martins. Water-loving wonders

Identification

  • The smallest of all these species
  • Dark brown
  • Except for a white underside divided by a distinctive brown bar across the chest.

Flight

Sand martins tend to swirl and flap rather than glide. They fly mainly over water and will also perch on overhead wires or branches.

Nesting

Uniquely among our swallows, swifts and martins, these birds burrow holes into sandy or dry earth banks. They need a dry, near-vertical bank in a sea-cliff, railway cutting, gravel pit or high riverbank though have also been known to try drainpipes poking out of walls and holes in brickwork. Entire colonies of birds can pepper cliffs with these little entrances to their nests, which are protected by law. 

Where to look

Farmland and wetland, especially along rivers, lake systems and man-made gravel pits with suitable nesting banks.

Helping sand martins

 Minsmere RSPB Reserve, pond and sand martin bank.

Sand martins need safe and long-lasting banks for their nests. These may be coastal cliffs, banks in gravel quarries, low riverbanks, or artificial sand cliffs, such as we have at RSPB Minsmere.

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