Swallow, Swift, Martin? How to Tell the Difference Between These Incredible Birds

Swallow, Swift, Martin? How to Tell the Difference Between TheseIncredible Birds

Differentiating between Swallows, Swifts and Martins can be difficult. However, there are some clues related to behavior, habitat, coloring and characteristics that can help you decipher which bird you’re looking at.

These birds have a lot more in common than appearance, though, and unfortunately, the saddest feature they share is a decline in their population. All three species have seen a significant decline, with the number of Swifts declining by a shocking 50 percent in the last 20 years.

Why Have These Populations Declined?

Interestingly, one of the causes of this population decline is the disruption of these birds’ nesting sites.

Swifts build their nests not only on cliff faces, but also under the eaves of houses. Swallows find themselves in a similar position, as they build their nests on beams, on ledges of cliffs or against shelves in buildings. Swallows build ‘cup’ type nests out of mud under the eaves of buildings as well.

Homeowners and businesses aren’t always welcoming towards these nesting birds, and they’re often chased off when owners destroy or remove their nests. Since all three of these bird species return to the same nesting sites year after year, this has led to a reduction in breeding.

What’s more, with the number of older homes diminishing, these species are actually losing some of their potential nesting sites. Unfortunately, newly constructed homes are usually too tightly sealed for them to make their nests in the holes or gaps. This is leaving some of these birds, well, homeless!

The Swallow: Flying High and Low

So, how does one differentiate between these beauties? Well, the Swallow’s key identifying feature is its long, forked tail, and its wings are long and pointed. The plumage on its back is a glossy blue or green, with its underside appearing plain or streaked. Its song is a twittering sound.

When rain is forecasted, or it’s already raining, Swallows fly low, but when the weather is fair, they fly high up. They feed on flying insects, often over waterways, but they can also be seen in grasslands, woodlands and other areas.

The male Swallows are the ones who choose the nesting site and then attract the females with their song and fancy flight maneuvers. They always build their nests out of mud. The nests are built in sheds and barns, as mentioned above, but swallows may also make use of holes they conveniently find in trees, on the roofs of unused aardvark burrows or in the ground.

The Swift: A Relative of the Hummingbird

Swallow, Swift, Martin? How to Tell the Difference Between TheseIncredible Birds

The Swift, on the other hand, has a slightly forked tail that isn’t as long as that of the Swallow. They have long, swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang. The Swift’s plumage is a dark, sooty olive color on its back, and a grayish-brown shade below. This bird has a slightly paler rump and a significantly paler throat. Its song is a piercing cry.

It’s been discovered that Swifts are related to Hummingbirds, unlike the Swallow and the House Martin. The Swift’s preferred diet consists of flying insects, including aerial spiders, mosquitoes, dragonflies and even wasps and bees. You can thank the Swift for diminishing the number of mosquitoes in the areas around its nesting sites!

The Swift, true to its name, is one of the fastest birds in flight, achieving speeds of 165 kilometres or 105 miles per hour. These birds do absolutely everything on the wing, including mating and sleeping.

They can often be spotted swooping low around buildings, where they generally build their nests in cavities or under eaves, but some also build their nests under rocks on cliffs. They build them out of grasses that have been ‘glued’ together by their sticky saliva, and later, line them with feathers.

Martins: Two Distinct Varieties

The House Martin is a little more distinctive. Its upper body is a metallic blue-black, like the Swallow, and its underbelly is white; however, its white rump distinguishes it from the Swallow. Like the Swallow and Swift, its tail is forked, but the fork is smaller than that of the Swallow.

House Martin

The diet of these birds is comprised of spiders and flying insects such as mosquitoes, so having their nests around your property is also a blessing—you can thank them for the reduced number of mosquitoes as well!

They build their nests on the sides of buildings and under eaves by using mud, and they line them with white feathers that have been gathered by the males. Albeit rarely, they can also be seen nesting in sheds, barns, or even inside roofs!

House Martins are colonial nesters, and it’s common to find four or five nests in the same proximity, but in large colonies, even hundreds of nests can be spotted close together. They prefer to reuse old nests, so if you find nests on your property, consider leaving them in place so as to preserve their habitats.

Also, be wary of the laws in your area—in some places, it’s illegal to knock down their nests. These birds mate in their nests, but they’re not very loyal partners, so a nest may contain eggs from several different fathers.

Sand Martins are similar in shape to House Martins, but as the name suggests, they prefer to nest in sandbanks and quarries.

Be Kind and Let Them Nest

By looking at the slightly distinguishing features of these three bug-eating birds, as well as their nesting sites and their flight patterns, you can easily determine which of these wonderful birds you’re looking at.

Installing bird boxes for any of these birds, or at least leaving their existing nests in place, will help their numbers grow. That, in turn, will help reduce the number of pesky insects on your property!

Featured image: Pixabay; Image 1: Pixabay; Image 2: Derek Keats; Image 3: Pixabay