How to distinguish swifts, swallows and martins

© Tim Hill

They are pulling blood-chilling stunts high above the ground. Swifts, swallows, house and sand martins are probably our most acrobatic birds, but they are often hard to tell apart.

Summertime is their time. On warm summer evenings, we can spot them in screaming parties, speeding high above our roofs, sometimes diving down dramatically, chasing each other. Swifts, swallows and martins surely portray a joie de vivre in summertime. 

But how do you distinguish them when they're moving so fast and sometimes far up? We've got a few tell-tale signs to look out for to identify each bird easily.

Swift in the air

Common Swift © David Tipling/2020VISION

Swift

Contrary to popular belief, swifts are not related to swallows and martins. In summer, they're the latest to arrive from the winter quarters and the first to leave, spending only around 6 weeks in the UK to breed. 

Except for breeding, swifts don't land. They eat, drink, sleep and even mate on the wing. Young swifts, which mostly don't breed at all until their third or fourth year, won't touch down for years.  

Wingspan: 36-50cm
Colour: Dark all over, mottled brown, can appear black in the sky, lighter throat
Defining feature: their distinctive sickle-shaped wings

swallow

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Swallow

Swallows and martins belong to the family hirundinidae - whereas swifts are from the family apodidae. This makes swifts closer related to hummingbirds than to swallows.

In late summer, swallows can often be spotted perching together on telephone wires and power lines. This is the swallow version of a Departure Hall, as they're getting ready to migrate to Africa for the winter.

Wingspan: 25-32cm
Colour: Glossy blue upperparts, white underparts, red throat
Defining feature: long forked tail, red throat

House martins

House martins © James Rogerson

House martins & sand martins

As the name suggests, house martins often nest in the eaves of houses in our towns and villages. Their intricate mud nests take days to build and are often returned to and used in following years. Sand martins live along rivers and other water bodies, including man-made gravel pits where artificial nesting banks are sometimes provided.

Wingspan: 26-29cm
Colour: House martin: glossy blue upperparts, pure white underparts 
             Sand martin: dark brown upperparts, dark underwings with a white belly and a brown chest bar
Defining feature: short tail, completely white underparts (no red throat like the swallow) (house martin), brown chest bar (sand martin)

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