Heard a faint screeching overhead or caught sight of small black/brown birds with long tapered wings chattering on telephone wires or zipping across the skyline?

The difference between a swift, swallow and house martin

The arrival of swallows, swifts and house martins causes a wave of excitement in the birdwatching community and for many, heralds that summer is on its way. Now that we’re all spending more time at home, you may have started to notice them too.

Sometimes they’re too fast or simply perched too high up to get a proper look, so we thought we’d share some bird spotting tips, so you can tell these aerial wizards apart.

Swallows (Hirundo rustica)

How to identify
If you spy a bird with a long, forked tail (a bit like a prong), you’ve spotted a swallow. And this isn’t the only telltale sign. Swallows have a pale white underbelly with a crimson red throat and a glossy blue-black plumage.

Swallow perched on overhead cable

Swallow perched on overhead cable. Photo credit: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Where to spot
Smaller than a swift, swallows circle overhead or use their tail to skilfully swoop low over water and the ground to hunt insects and drink water on the wing. These sociable birds can also be found chirruping from telephone wires and wire fencing with their distinctive twitter.

Barn swallows and house martins gathering on telephone wires

Barn swallows and house martins gathering on telephone wires. Photo credit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)

Nesting habits
Like house martins and swifts, swallows winter in Africa and return to the Northern Hemisphere to breed, first returning to the UK in April. Outbuildings with nooks and crannies or roof beams are favourite nesting spots, where they’ll construct a cup-shape from wet mud and dry grass to lay their eggs.

Barn swallow nesting above lights in farm
Barn swallow nesting above lights in farm. Photo credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

With an official full name of ‘barn swallow’, it’s unsurprising that barns and farm sheds are also a preferred nesting location. David Sandford of Porloughan Farm in Co. Down, and Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, correlates the return of nesting swallows to his farm with the “sowing of new crops and the arrival of spring”.

“I make sure to leave the barn doors open, so they can access at all times, allowing parents to continue feeding their chicks.

"Later in the year, our farm ponds are a hive of activity, with large numbers of swallows and the occasional swift swooping over to catch insects.

"Their presence demonstrates that our farmed environment is healthy and capable of supporting a range of different wildlife.”

House martins (Delichon urbicum)

How to identify
Want to know who wears the trousers out of these birds? It’s the house martin, thanks to its distinct bright white underside and legs. Similar to swallows, they have a blue-black plumage but a short, forked-shape tale and white rump on their back.

House martin landing on telephone wire

House martin landing on telephone wire. Photo credit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)

Where to spot
Broad, pointed wings with a short wingspan make house martins zippy fliers who often flutter in and out of house eaves during the mornings and evenings. You may have heard their sharp “jik, jik” twittering outside your bedroom window. During the day, their flocks can often be found swooping over wetlands and lakeshores as they hoover up midges, mayflies, damselflies and dragonflies in flight.

House martin at nest in barn

House martin at nest. Photo credit: John Markham (rspb-images.com)

Nesting habits
Like their Hirundine family cousins (swallows), house martins collect mud to build cup-shaped nests on the outside of eaves, but with the increase in temperatures due to climate change, damp mud for building is becoming ever harder to come by. With numbers in decline, you can help by buying a ready-made house martin cup and installing it at home; putting wet mud in a shallow container; or by creating damp mud at the edges of grass borders.

Swifts (Apus Apus)

How to identify
Swifts aren’t called ‘swift’ for nothing. Reaching speeds of up to 70 mph, these medium-sized, mid-air gymnasts are superb fliers who eat, sleep and mate on the wing! Swifts only land when it’s time to nest (though they sometimes cling to a high vertical surface) with a juvenile swift spending up to three years in flight.

Swift clinging on to door

Swift clinging on to door. Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

What makes them visually distinct is their colour, wing shape and tail form. Although they look black against the sky, swifts are a dark, sooty brown shade with a pale throat. Their wingspan is long and narrow, a bit like a boomerang, and they have a tail that’s slightly forked but not as much as a swallow's.

You’ll hear them before you see them too. Swifts have an unmistakeable call; a piercing, high-pitched scream in full flight, but they aren’t noisy at the nest.

Nesting habits
And it’s with nesting that you’ll notice another distinction. Swifts nest in holes and crevices, often inside roofs, old buildings or cliffs. That means, if you notice an obvious nest, it’s definitely not a swift nest.

Like many of our most precious species, swifts are sadly in trouble too. The UK has seen numbers plummeting, with a 57% decline between 1995 and 2017. This has been attributed to insecticides used in industrial farming (they need habitats rich in insects to survive); loss of suitable nesting sites (modern construction doesn’t allow for eaves or cavities); and climate change impacting their mammoth 6000-mile migration route between Africa and the UK.

Swifts in flight

Swifts in flight. Photo credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

How to help
Not only can you share your swift sightings with us to aid our conservation efforts, you can encourage your friends and neighbours to look out for swifts or nest sites too (from a safe, social distance of course). Find out more about our conservation work and the Swift Mapper here.
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