Swifts, swallows and martins: how to tell the difference

Swifts, swallows and

Today it feels like change is the air. Spring has sprung but something felt new this week. The hedges are dotted with sparks of green and crinkled leaves have burst their buds on horse chestnut trees. Woodpeckers are hammering and blue tits are nesting.  This also means that our most charming of summer migrants, the swifts, swallows, house and sand martins, will soon be here! I simply adore all these beautiful and unique bird species. I’ve already heard reports from friends that swallows and sand martins have been sighted.

I am always delighted by these fleeting summer visitors but it wasn’t until a couple of years or so ago that could I actually tell them apart. I would enjoy their presence without knowing which was which. And I know many people feel the same. So I thought I’d share some tips on telling the difference between these similar birds in case you spot them in the coming months. There’s some interesting facts about them thrown in too!


Common swift in flight

Swifts are one of the most fascinating species on the planet. They spend 9 months of the year on the wing. They hunt, eat, mate, play, preen and sleep whilst airborne.  The only time they touch down is when they nest. They’re also one of our most ancient species (most of our other bird species are later versions in the evolutionary journey) accounting for their slightly unique look. The fact they rarely land is another reason for their odd appearance too. Another cool fact is that their young can go into a torpor, where their metabolism slows right down, if their parents fly long distances to get food (sometimes heading to the continent and back) or if the weather turns cold. I think swifts look a little bit like bats (especially when they crouch on a wall or nest).

How to identify them: dark brown in colour (but look black against the sky) with long narrow wings, small brown legs, a pale throat and thin short black beaks. Their tails are forked but much shorter than the elongated pronged tail of a swallow.

When to see them in the UK: April – September

Group of common swifts in flight high in the sky

When groups of swifts fly ahead you can usually hear their screaming piercing call to each other.



Barn swallow in flight

These are the colourful, acrobatic and exotic birds of the group with their iridescent colours and astonishing agility in the air. They are so photogenic. I love watching swallows swooping down over water or picking up globs of mud from puddles for their nests. I’m lucky enough to see lots of swallows at the stables where I horse-ride, they nest in the old stone barns and pick up mud from the yard churned up by horse hooves. Last year one nearly flew into my face! It’s always a thrill to be that close to wildlife. The ones we see in the UK usually migrate from Africa but swallows are a very widespread species that can be seen globally, from South America to Australia. Their forked tail with thin elongated prongs are their most striking feature, like that of the aptly named swallowtail butterfly (I wonder which came first!).

How to identify them: Swallows have orange/red chins under a black short thin beak. Their backs and tails are a dark blue/black colour and their underside is a creamy white. They have long elongated forked tails that sharpen to points.

When to see them in the UK: March – October

Barn swallows and martens drinking

You can often see swallows in wetland areas where they catch bugs above the water or in urban places where they nest.


House Martin

House martin at sea, in flight

If you see a martin it’s most likely that you’ve seen a house martin. As the name suggests, they are very urban birds that nest under the eaves of our houses, similar to swallows. We used to have house martins nesting in my parents’ shed, it was amazing looking up at the nest and seeing gaping wide orange mouths snapping at the air for food.  The parents would flash by, heading back and forth from the nest with food (presumably). At a bird ID talk I once attended, the speaker said that house martins look like mini orcas with wings and I totally agree! They are the same shape and similar contrasting colours.

How to identify them: black/blue bodies with a distinctive white rump on top, above the forked tail, and a white belly. White feathers cover their white legs when they fly. Their beaks are black, short and thin.

When to see them in the UK: March – October

Three house martins in flight

The flying orcas approach!

Sand Martin

Sand martin flying over water

I’ve only ever seen a couple of sand martins at Rutland Water Nature Reserve which has a huge artificial sand martin nesting bank (basically a large concrete block shed with lots of holes in the wall!). It’s out of reach of the public but I had a chance to see it when it was empty. It was magical to imagine the hundreds of birds and their chicks nestled together in this one noisy, cosy and bustling shed. You’re less likely to see sand martins because, as their name suggests, they stick to sandy places to nest such as along riverbanks, quarries and gravel pits unlike their urban cousins, the swallows and house martins. They also migrate from Africa, but have suffered there with droughts causing population crashes in the past. They look similar to house martins except they are much lighter with brown colouring contrasted against white.

How to identify them: brown bodies and a white belly with a collar of dark brown on the underside of their neck. They have brown legs which are hidden under white feathers when they fly. Their beaks are black, short and thin.

When to see them in the UK: March – October

Sand martin flock


So there’s my short guide to identifying the difference between swifts, swallows, house and sand martins! With thanks to Arkive and RSPB for a reminder of some of the facts and ID tips, and the photos. If you’ve never seen these birds then I recommend looking out for them this summer near old houses, barns and water bodies. They really are some of our most interesting and stunning wild birds.

Have you seen any swifts, swallows, house or sand martins yet this year? Do you usually have any swallows or house martins nesting where you live in summer?


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