How To Identify Swallows, Swifts And House Martins

One of the perennial problems at this time of year is figuring out whether that bird that just flew overhead at the speed of light was a swallow, a swift or a house martin.

But fortunately while these birds are all superficially similar, there are a range of differences between them that can make telling these three bird species apart reasonably simple once you know what to look for.


Wire Fence Sitter
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Swallows are most easily identified by their red chin and the longer feathers on either side of the tail which stick out like streamers and make them easy to spot in flight.


Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Creative Commons License photo credit: Michael Woodruff

Swifts are one of those amazing birds which barely ever come to ground to rest except to nest spending virtually their whole life on the wing. High pitched screeching and curved, sickle-shaped wings together with a short tail help to identify this species who can often be seen in warm summer days performing acrobatics in the sky as they hunt for their insect prey.

House Martins

house martin
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The house martin is probably the smallest of these three species and has a gently curved tail, unlike the squarer tail of the swift or the “streamers” of the swallow. They are most easily identified, however, by their white rump which can often be clearly seen even from some distance as these birds fly past.

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3 thoughts on “How To Identify Swallows, Swifts And House Martins

  1. It also helps to know where you are geographically. For example, in the US, you are not likely going to see a Purple Martin on the West Coast.

  2. I have just seen maybe forty to fifty birds in the sky flying at amazing speed – no wing flapping – with definite white underside but looking bigger than 14 cm and having a sharper wing silhouette than shown for the House Martin. the tail did not have the sharp ends like the swallow ??? almost short and less pointed I am wondering if it could be a swift but can’t find a swift with a white underside. It s a warm Summer day in Cape Town. ???

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