Sunday, 11 May 2014

Swallow, Swift or Martin? A handy guide.

Like many folk who enjoy being outdoors, I've been basking in the return of the Barn Swallow Hirundo Rustica, or else just plain old 'Swallow' for the past few weeks.  Typically they arrive on territory where I live around the last couple of days of March, or the first few days of April.

I love the return of our breeding migrant birds in the Spring.  For me they fill the air with lovely noise, and constant action.  They give me something to look out of the office window at when I feel like I need to blow my stack.

I can tell a Housemartin, from a Swallow, from a Swift etc from a hundred yards and for me, it's not that difficult.  That's not me showing off - anyone can do it.  I'm so sure about it that I will try to show you how using this blogpost.  Here goes:

Let's start with the birds we are talking about;

- The Sand Martin - Riparia riparia
- The Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica
- The House Martin - Delichon urbica
- The Common Swift - Apus Apus

I have listed them in that order because that is the order in which they return to the UK in Spring.  Sometimes there are anomalies, and sometimes the odd Swallow doesn't go on it's Winter holiday to Africa at all.  So here are a few methods which should help you identify the bird at which you are squinting.

Method One - Arrival Time:

If you are looking at one or better still, a group of these birds at the start of March, then you are probably looking at a - or at a group of - Sand Martins.  These birds - the smallest of them all - arrive before any of the other birds mentioned above.

Method Two - Visual Appearance:

Getting a good view of these birds isn't always easy, but assuming you do here is what to look out for.  We'll start with the Swallow given that it is probably the best known of them all.


The give away for this bird is it's long tail streamers.  They are long and thin, not at all stubby, and are at least a fifth of the entire length of the bird.    Take care using this feature in identification later in the Summer as the juveniles have much shorter - but still thin - streamers.
The underside of the bird is white, or at least very pale, from the beneath the chin, all the way down to where the streamers begin.
They do not have any white on their faces, nor on their backs which are totally dark, black even.
The Swallow is the only bird to have any red on their plumage and this is restricted to the front of the face.  This is not always easy to see against a bright sky, but if you can get your binoculars on them, especially against a dark backdrop, it will be clear to see.  Juvenile birds have a paler pink face, but it is not white.
All Swallows have a black chin-strap.  This is less easy to see in adult birds in some situations.
The Swallow has black, or rather dark feet.


This bird is the largest of the group, although size is nearly impossible to compare unless another species is flying close by.
This bird is all-black but can appear to have a lighter patch beneath the chin.
The Swift has a shorter tail, which although still forked is not in any way long or thin. 
The body of the Swift appears short in comparison to their long wingspan.  They are often referred to as being 'sickle-shaped' and this is an excellent description. 
The wings appear much more pointed than any of the other birds in our group.

House Martin

Getting a good look at this bird, you will probably find the House Martin the easiest in our group to identify.
Viewed from directly underneath, the bird is totally pale, and white aside from it's tail which is black.
The tail is more like that of the Swift, being more moderately forked and stumpy.  No streamers here.
The House Martin's feet are also white.
The back of this bird has a distinctive white patch on it's rump.  Other than this patch, the back is black.
The House Martin does not have a chin-strap.

Sand Martin

The smallest of our group, this bird is most often confused with the House Martin but on closer inspection there are several differences.
The bird is noticeably more brown than black.
The tail, whilst still forked is much more rounded and 'stubby'.
The Sand Martin has a chin-strap, or chest band.
It has wings that are much darker than the body.
It does NOT have a white patch on it's rump as with the House Martin.

Method Three - Behaviour/Locations/Nesting


Other than when grouping and on migration, Swallows do not hold such large groups as the rest of our group.  They tend to nest in more rural locations, although are also seen nesting in towns.
These birds often perch on wires, allowing good views of their tail streamers.
Their flight is almost bouncy and they rarely glide, making regular strong wing beats.
The nest are almost always in buildings, and under cover.  I often see Swallows nesting inside toilet blocks on camp sites.
The nest is a muddy cup about the size of a very large man's hand and is usually open topped.
The Nest is always supported underneath, on a platform such as an exposed timber beam or jutting brick. 
The back of the nest is usually formed by the building in which it is made.
The Swallow usually hunts its prey - insects - at low level such as over crops or water.
Swallows have a constant, chattery voice, quite pleasant sounding.  They seem to always be in communication with one-another.


Swifts never perch, EVER.  In fact, if they do land on the floor it is usually impossible for them to take back off again.  If you see one floundering or struggling on the floor, pick it up and let it fall from about head height. 

**important - Sean Clayton of quite rightly pointed out that it might be wise to check for other injuries BEFORE dropping the Swift from head height! Thanks Sean.**

Swifts are often seen in high Summer in groups of 4 to 8 dashing together at break-neck speed through and between buildings, even in the High Street.
Swifts almost exclusively nest in the roof cavities of buildings, but their natural nests are NOT visible.  Occasionally Swift nestboxes are put up under the soffits of houses and other buildings.  The boxes will typically have an off-set slightly elongated entrance hole. 
They are very occasionally seen clinging to a crag or wall beneath their nest site.
Swifts have the most direct flight pattern of the group gliding fast and often, with strong bursts of accomplished wingbeats.
Swifts hunt their insect prey up high, occasionally very high.
Their call is unmistakeable once identified.  They scream loudly as they hurtle through the skies, usually right above our heads in the High Street or Car Park.

House Martin

As with Swallows, House Martins also perch.
They have a tendancy to make the occasional glides and appear much more aerobatic, making more turns and twists than the remainder of the group.
The House Martin nests on buildings creating mud cup which does NOT sit on tip of an existing support like that of a Swallow.  The nest is usually fixed to a wall AND an overhang such as the eaves of a house using both soffit and fascia as their anchor. 
The entrance hole is more of a semi-circular hole than a slot and the top of the nest is NEVER open, other than during construction.
Nests are usually colonial, with several individual nests that can be adjoined, or terraced.
These birds are less easy to disturb than the rest of the group, and are much easier to get close to.  They can be coaxed to peek out of their entrance holes by making a kissing sound with your lips.  Try it later in Summer.
They feed quite high in the sky, sometimes with Swifts.
House Martins are also very vocal, their voice being a vast collection of squidgy sounding, fart noises, much less sweet than the Swallow, but still has a charm about it.

Sand Martin

This bird is most often found near, or over water.  Rarely in towns, unless suitable nesting or feeding sites are close by.
The Sand Martin nests colonially in burrows made in a river bank, usually sandy as the name might suggest.  Some reserves have created aritificial Sand Martin nesting colonies which seem to be readily used by the birds. 
Typical hunting is low and over water, although not exclusively.
Their voice is distinctive, raspy and dry like.  I haven't paid too much attention to this call myself so have to rely on descriptions in bird guides.

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