Swift or Swallow?

Kruger National Park | May 2018

Swifts and swallows are both well-known birds in southern Africa. These two families of birds are often confused due to their similar body structures and mannerisms. They are both highly manoeuvrable birds, with streamlined bodies, often with a forked tail, small beaks, short legs that are unsuitable for walking and relatively long wings. They can often be seen flying low over the grasslands (particularly just before or after the rains) hunting small soft-bodied insects and invertebrates such as alates (flying termites), flying ants, ballooning spiders and mosquitos. Many species of swifts and swallows are migratory birds and the diversity of these species certainly increases during our summer months.

Swifts and swallows are, however, very different genetically and fall under completely different families. Swallows fall under the family Hirundinidae (which also includes the group of birds known as Martins), whereas the swifts fall under the family Apodidae. Genetically swallows and martins are related to warblers, white-eyes and tits. Swifts are closer related to hummingbirds. Resemblances between swifts and swallows are due to convergent evolution, reflecting similar lifestyles based on catching insects in flight.

The main differences between Swifts and Swallows are as follows:

  • Swifts are usually black and white (or grey) in colour, whereas swallows usually have some blue iridescence (particularly on their wings and backs) and often have russet colouration on the heads, throats or rumps. Martins, however, are often brown or grey in colour.
  • The wings of swifts are usually scythe or sickle-shaped, whereas swallows have sharply pointed wings with distinctive angular wrists (where the front of the wing bends and where the radiale bone is).
  • Swallows and martins have anisodactyl foot structures (one toe pointing backwards and three toes pointing forward) and are therefore able to perch. Swifts, in comparison, have a pamprodactyl foot structure (all four toes point forward). Swifts are therefore unable to perch on branches or telephone lines like swallows are able to do. Swifts do, however, often hang on the sides of cliffs or rock ledges, particularly when breeding.
  • Swallows tend to build their nests from mud or nest in holes in trees (or sometimes on the roofs of unused aardvark burrows or in holes in the ground), whereas swifts tend to build their nests under eaves or under ledges on cliff faces by gluing feathers together using their sticky saliva.
  • Swallows usually sing with a musical twittering sound whereas swifts call with a high-pitched screaming sound.

Some interesting information about swallows:

  • During the non-breeding season certain species of swallows roost in large colonies. There have been reports of a particular roost of barn swallows in Nigeria that attracted up to 1.5 million individual birds in the winter months.
  • Sightings of swallows are often seen by oceanic sailors to be good omens. This is probably because swallows are generally considered to be land-based birds and therefore sightings of these birds, when out at sea, could suggest to sailors that there is land nearby.
  • The swallow is often referred to as the “bird of freedom”. This is because swallows generally cannot endure captivity and will only mate in the wild. The swallow is also referred to by some as the “true bird of love”.
  • The barn swallow, which used to be called the “European swallow”, is one of the most common swallows in southern Africa. This bird migrates from to Europe Red-breasted swallow to southern Africa each year and spends the summer months here before gathering in fairly large flocks prior to commencing the return journey in our Autumn months. These birds tend to breed in Europe.
  • Low-flying swallows are often seen as a sign that rain is coming.

Little Swifts and a Lesser-striped Swallow

Some interesting information about swifts:

  • Due to the fact that swifts cannot perch many species of swifts (particularly when they are migrating) even sleep, eat and drink while they are flying.
  • Swifts, and their relatives the spinetails, are known to be some of the fastest flying birds, supposedly attaining speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour.
  • In Asia the nests of the edible-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) are collected by people to make soup. These nests are made entirely of bird saliva. Over-harvesting of this expensive delicacy has led to a decline in the numbers of these swiftlets, especially as the nests are also thought to have health benefits and aphrodisiac properties.
  • The African palm swift (Cypsiurus parvus) makes its nest on the underside of palm leaves, where it glues the eggs and some feathers to the leaf with its sticky saliva.
  • The Family name Apodidae comes from the Greek word “apous”, meaning “without feet”, since swifts have very short legs and never settle voluntarily on the ground.

White Rumped Swift and Alpine Swift