Swifts and Swallows

Swifts and swallows are unrelated yet superficially very similar in appearance. Can you tell the difference between these aerial acrobats?

Swift and Swallow
Swift in flight displaying all-over brown colouring and long wings.

Swift in flight displaying all-over brown colouring and long wings.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves


Swifts are very aerial birds being highly adapted to spending large amounts of time in the air. They are even known to sleep on the wing during long migratory journeys. They are superbly fast, with one species being recorded cruising at 169 km per hour! Although swifts can be found on every continent except Antarctica, they tend not to venture too far north or into any major deserts.

Part of the Apodidae group of birds, they are more closely related to hummingbirds than they are swallows and martins. Apodidae translates Greek apous meaning "without feet", which is a reference to their small legs.

Swifts are migratory, with the common swift being the species seen during the summer in the UK. The common swift summer breeding range extends throughout Europe and Asia, extending south to northern Africa having migrated from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.

Swallow parents feeding a nest of offspring.

Swallow parents feeding a nest of offspring.


Swallows (and martins) are a group of passerine birds, which make up the more familiar-named songbirds.

Like swifts, swallows and martins are have adaptations to hunting insects on the wing. Their streamlined body and long wings allow manoeuvrability in the air and greater endurance and efficiency when gliding. Their legs are short with feet just about large enough for perching.

Some swallows make their nests tree cavities or burrows, while others will create nests made of mud in sheltered locations like man-made structures.

With summer breeding ranges that extend throughout the northern hemisphere and wintering grounds in the southern, swallows, like swifts, will migrate vast distances.

Attenborough on Swifts and Swallows

Humans, Mythology and Migration

Swallows and swifts have long been tolerated by humans as they do a good job in controlling insect pests and there have been several incidences in history where there have been attempts to tame them. Pliny the Elder described the use of swallows in delivering reports on who won a horse race, while in the nineteenth century there was an attempt to train swallows as messenger birds.

A 12th century monk called Caesarius von Heisterbach once attached a note to the leg of a swallow that read, "Oh swallow, where do you live in winter?" The following spring the bird returned and attached was a reply which said, "In Asia, in the home of Petrus."

Although the story of Caesarius von Heisterbach and his note showed that we understood that swallows migrated, if true that is, there were still several who were unconvinced of their migration.

The 16th Century Swede Olaus Magnus drew a famous picture that showed fishermen drawing up numerous swallows in their nets - at the time, it was thought that swallows spent the winter hibernating underwater. However, this was disproved by the scientist Edward Jenner, who noted that swallows were unable to survive submersion, having tested it for himself, and that although he did not know where they went marked swallows returned to the same point the next year.

It was with the recent advent of GPS technology and bird-ringing that we now know where swallows go and the paths they take to get there.

Find Out More

Spot the Difference

Swifts, swallows and martins are all superficially very similar, and you'd be forgiven for thinking they were all closely related.

However, the larger swifts are quite unrelated to swallows and martins: their similarities are actually a product of convergent evolution, with similar adaptations for catching insects whilst airborne.

Swallows' distinctive forked tail have long, tapered feathers, while they also have a black head and red chin strap. Confusingly, swifts have forked tails that look quite similar to the martins, however they are dark brown all over, while house martins have white bellies and rumps. You will also never see martins perching, like you would swallows along a telephone wire.

Quick Facts

  • There are species of swifts create nests entirely from their saliva, which are collected by humans and form the basis for "bird's nest soup".
  • A swift has been recorded flying at 169 km per hour.
  • Swallow flight is approximately 50–75% more efficient than other passerines.