Swifts, Swallows and House Martins – which are which?

It is May and for several weeks now the skies have been full of House Martins, Swallows and Swifts that  have returned from their wintering grounds in Africa. It  truly is a delight to watch their frenetic spring activity as they gather together on telephone lines, screech through the sky, swoop fast and low over the river, pair-up and begin to build their nests.

Every year we have birders staying here who watch them with the same fascination that I do. We also have lots of non-birders and each year I know that it is only a matter of time before someone asks me  “Are they all swallows? “,  “Which is which?, or “How do you tell them apart?”  So here are a few photographs and descriptions to help:

House Martin (Delichon urbica)

Is a small (think sparrow/chaffinch/robin-sized bird ) on which the most distinctive features are a white rump and forked tail. The underside is also white, contrasting with the rest of the blue-black upperparts, against which the white rump stands out very well. It has dumpier look than the swallow. If you can get a close view, note too how the House Martin legs and feet have a covering of downy feathers.  House Martins hunt insects on the wing often with a fluttery flight and long glides.

House Martin, clearly showing the white rump.

House Martin, clearly showing the white rump.

Martins nest colonially and you will often see clusters of their nests built with pellets of mud and saliva underneath roof eaves or similar. The top of the nest is built right up to touch the eaves leaving just a small entrance to one side.

House Martin nest  with small opening

House Martin nest with small opening

And another – just because it is so cute… 🙂

House Martin delivering insect dinner!

House Martin delivering insect dinner!

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

The Barn Swallow is the bird most frequently confused with the House Martin.  Once you have familiarised yourself with the differences you’ll wonder how you ever got them confused!   Like the House Martin they are blue-black above but an off-white below. Barn swallows are elegant, streamlined birds with pointed wings and a long forked tail which ends in thin streamers.  Sometimes the streamers can be hard to see and juveniles may have very short ones.  Barn Swallows though do not have a white rump and this is usually the most obvious difference if you are watching a mixed group of swallows and martins. They have a dark red throat and forehead which can be hard to see unless the bird is near.  Barn swallows can often be seen flying very low over water or the ground to catch flying insects. They build an open cup-shaped nest of mud and straw often on an interior beam or ledge in a barn, attic, outbuilding or under a bridge.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow collecting mud for nest

Barn Swallow collecting mud for nest

Barn Swallow nest

Barn Swallow nest – an open cup

Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica)

In Spain we also have the Red-rumped Swallow.  It is very similar to the Barn Swallow but has – you’ve guessed it – a red rump!  From a distance the red doesn’t always stand out very well and they can be momentarily mistaken for House Martins – until you see the long forked tail and streamers, that is!  Talking of the tail, the underside of the Red-rumped Swallow tail is black, unlike the Barn Swallow which is white – this is a useful ID marker if you are looking at them from below.  At close range it can be seen that the RR-Swallow also has a pale face and cheeks and the nape of the neck is red.  In early Spring, there is always that first wonderful morning when I wake to the chittering and rattling of up to a couple of hundred Martins and Barn Swallows perching on the telephone wires outside our house!  There are usually a few Red-rumped swallows amongst them and I eagerly scan them looking for the tell-tale rumps. For a few days half a dozen or so hang about here on the river in Mora and then they move on to their breeding grounds.

Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow

Red-rumped Swallows are unlikely to use human habitations for their nest, preferring to be under bridges, cliff overhangs or in caves. Their nests are closed nests (more like the House Martin) but have a distinctive tunnel entrance. I’ve only ever seen a nest once which was under a railway bridge and it was a double one. Or was it one nest with two entrances – In and Out? His and Hers?

Red-rumped Swallow nest

Red-rumped Swallow nest

Common Swift (Apus apus)

Whilst the above 3 birds are all in the family Hirundinidae, Swifts are in the family Apodidae. Strictly speaking then they are not related – but that doesn’t stop them being confused with the Hirundines.  Swifts are remarkable birds living their life almost entirely on the wing, even sleeping and copulating in flight! When a young bird leaves the nest it will not land again for 2 to 3 years when it becomes mature enough to breed!  Swift wings are long and scythe- shaped which gives them a very aerodynamic outline when you see them tear through the skies in screaming flocks.

The unmistakeable aerodynamic shape  of a swift

The unmistakeable aerodynamic shape of a swift

Their feet are made for clinging to vertical surfaces not perching on wires or standing so you will invariably see Swifts in flight, when, against the sky they appear to be black. They are in fact an all-over sooty brown colour apart from a pale area at the throat. Swifts nest in cracks or holes in buildings or walls.  Some of the cracks seem impossibly small and it is astonishing to see the swifts fly into them at top speed!

Swifts nesting in cavity under bridge

Swifts nesting in cavity under bridge

So, here are a few more photos of Swallows and Martins – see if you can sort them out!  (none of swifts – the 2 above are the only ones I’ve ever managed!)

Photo A

Photo A

Photo B

Photo B

 

Photo C

Photo C

Photo D

Photo D

Photo E

Photo E

Yes, I’m really showing off with that last one! All three species sat on our balcony!

How did you do? Easy huh?

 

 

 

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