Swifts, swallows and martins
Swifts, swallows and martins are small birds with long, tapered wings and forked tails. Although their beaks are small, their mouths are wide, making it easier for them to catch insects in the air.
They are incredibly agile in flight and can be seen performing impressive aerial aerobics in the summer skies.
Of course most flying birds rely on their ability to fly but swifts, swallows and martins spend most of their time ‘on the wing’ and are able to perform tasks like eating, drinking and bathing in the air!
Spending the winters in Africa, they migrate back to Scotland in the summer to breed. They typically breed for life and return to the same nesting spot each year to repair their existing nest.
Swifts, swallows and martins often get confused for one another because they look similar from a distance.
Swifts are dark brown with a white throat but can appear black against the sky. They have long, narrow wings and a short, forked tail.
Swallows have dark, glossy blue feathers with a reddish patch under the chin. Their forked tails are much longer than those of swifts and martins.
House martins have glossy blue upperparts, similar to a swallow, but they have a distinctive white rump. Their tail is also forked, but much shorter like a swift’s.
Sand martins are similar in shape to house martins. They are mainly brown but their underside is white with a brown strip.
Swifts, swallows and martins return to the same nesting site each year, making any renovations when they return from migration.
If a nest is easy to spot, it's definitely not a swift! Swifts only build their nests inside the roofs of houses and other buildings, or in special swift boxes. They can fit though the smallest gaps to get in. Swifts build their nests out of any material that can be gathered in the air like feathers, straw and hay. They use their saliva to stick it together.
Specially designed ‘swift bricks’ can be installed in new buildings to give swifts a safe place to rest and raise a family. You could also help swifts by putting up a nesting box in your garden.
Swallows prefer to build their cup-shaped nests in outbuildings like barns, sheds and garages, using shelves or ledges for stability. Their nests are predominantly made from mud and grass.
Like swifts, house martins often live in built-up areas but they build their nests under the eaves of houses out of lumps of mud or clay. They have a rough, stone-like appearance.
Sand martins, as you may have guessed, make their homes by burrowing into sandbanks. Living in colonies, they excavate tunnels in sandy, dry vertical banks by rivers and on sea-cliffs which are 45 to 90cm and have a chamber at the end. The nest is lined with feathers, leaves and grass in preparation for laying eggs.
Swifts have a piercing, screaming call, but aren't noisy at the nest.
Swallows have a twittering song, which they give from a perch on a fence or building, or while they're flying whereas martins have more of a short, sharp chirp with some twittering.
Swifts rarely touch the ground. Because they spend almost all of their time in flight, their feet and legs haven’t developed so they can hardly walk!
However, swallows and martins can be spotted perching on wires, fences or sometimes on tree branches. They can sometimes be spotted resting on roofs, walls of buildings or on the ground. Swallows also tend to gather in flocks around migration time.
Where do swifts, swallows and martins live?
They are found in areas where there is a healthy supply of small flying insects so it is most common to see them in areas near water, fields or woodland.
Swifts, swallows and house martins can also be seen in towns and villages as they use buildings to roost whilst sand martins are more likely to be found near beaches, rivers or cliffs where they can burrow into the sandbanks.
What do swifts, swallows and martins eat?
Female swifts lay two to three eggs a few days apart. The eggs hatch after around 20 days and by six weeks old, the chicks are ready to start learning to fly.
A swallow’s clutch is usually between three and eight eggs which are incubated for 14 to 19 days before hatching. After 10 days, the fledglings leave the nest to learn how to fly.
Female house martins lay four or five eggs at daily intervals which take around two weeks of incubation to hatch. The start learning to fly after around 23 days.
Sand martins usually lay between three and seven eggs. The chicks hatch after two weeks of incubation and start learning to fly after 19 to 24 days in the nest.
They survive on a diet of insects which they catch as they fly around.
When do swifts, swallows and martins migrate?
Spending the winters in Africa, they migrate thousands of miles back to Scotland in the summer to breed.
Swallows can cover 200 miles a day at speeds of 17 to 22 miles per hour. The maximum flight speed is 35 mph.
There is even a record of a swift making the 6000km journey in just five days!
Common problems for swifts, swallows and martins
Grounded swifts, swallows or martins
Learning to fly is daunting for all fledglings but particularly for those who spent most of their time on the wing.
Crash landings happen when young swifts, swallows and martins leave their nests before they’re able to fly properly. Adult birds may also be on the ground if they're sick or injured. If you find a swift, swallow or martin on the ground, place a box over them and call our helpline on 03000 999 999.
Signs to look out for include:
• Obvious injuries.
• An adult bird that is unable to fly.
• Caught and injured by another animal.
• Lethargic or not moving.
• Tangled in litter.
• Trembling or convulsing.
• Walking around in circles.
• Holding their head at an abnormal angle.
• A nestling found on the ground.
The changing climate is thought to be the main cause of all the problems that have led to a decline in swift, swallow and martin number. Changing levels of rainfall mean that mud is not the right consistency for nest-building and there are fewer insects to sustain a healthy diet. Low availability of food can lead to fewer healthy eggs being laid, and higher levels of chick starvation.
Loss of nesting sites
Swifts squeeze through gaps in roofs and eaves to build their nests, however, new builds tend to be more air-tight than older buildings.
Some people try to deter swallows and house martins from nesting on their house or outbuildings due to noise or bird droppings. Remember, it is illegal to disturb a nest which is in use. If you are removing an old nest, consider providing a bird house or artificial nest in your garden instead.
Building works over the summer can also prevent the birds from returning to their usual nesting site.