The swallow and the swift have a lot in common. They’re both aerial experts that eat and drink on the wing. They’re both summer visitors to the UK, making long migrations from Africa each spring. Yet despite these similarities, these two species aren’t even closely related!


What’s the difference between a swallow and a swift?

How to tell the difference between a swallow and a swift

Swallows (also known as barn swallows) are one of our most familiar and beloved birds, heralding the arrival of summer as they return from Africa each year. They have long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail with long tail streamers.

Young swallows don’t have tail streamers, but their tail is still deeply forked. They’re glossy blue on their back, with a white breast and belly. They have a dark band across the upper breast, like a collar, and a rusty red throat and face, though these just look dark at a distance.

Swifts are a similar length but have much longer wings. Their wings are also more pointed than a swallow’s and sweep smoothly backwards like a sickle – they look a bit like boomerangs, with a body stuck to the middle.

Their short tail is often held together in a point, but is slightly forked when it’s fanned out. The fork is much shallower than that of a swallow’s tail, and it lacks the long, thin tail streamers. Swifts are very dark birds, with sooty-black feathers all over – apart from a small, subtly paler patch on the throat. This patch is more obvious in juvenile swifts, where it also extends onto the face.

Swallow vs swift: flight and migration

Swallows are excellent fliers, but they often land on overhead wires and other suitable ledges. They also perch to sleep. In late summer and autumn, large numbers of swallows may gather to roost in reedbeds. Swifts on the other hand rarely land, apart from when they’re visiting their nest – though they will occasionally cling to the side of a building or other vertical surface. They eat, drink, mate, and even sleep whilst flying!

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Both birds make incredible journeys each year. Swallows migrate between the UK and South Africa. The first swallows usually arrive in the UK in March and most are gone by the end of October. Swifts spend even less time here! They arrive in late April or early May and are heading south again by August. They spend the winter in Africa, south of the Sahara. They wander widely across the continent, taking advantage of emerging insects triggered by rainfall.

Swifts and swallows are often talked about together because they share some similar habits, but the two species aren’t closely related at all. Swallows belong to a family of birds called Hirundinidae – members of this family are often referred to as hirundines. This large group contains about 90 birds around the world, including the house martins and sand martins that also visit the UK in summer. The Hirundinidae family is grouped together with lots of other families of birds in the order Passeriformes – birds belonging to this group are known as passerines or sometimes perching birds.

Swifts don’t just belong to a different family to swallows, they belong to a completely different order! In fact, they’re more closely related to hummingbirds than they are to swallows. Swifts form a family called Apodidae, which traditionally sits in the order Apodiformes alongside treeswifts and hummingbirds.

Swallow vs swift: habitat

Swallows favour rural areas and open countryside. They’re often seen flying low over fields, meadows, and farmland. You’re especially likely to see them feeding over grazing livestock or open water, where lots of insects gather. Swifts will also gather over open water to feed, though they tend to spend more time high in the sky. Swifts are more likely to be seen over towns and cities than swallows, due to their choice of nest sites. They fly around buildings, sometimes in groups, letting out sharp, screaming calls.

Swallow vs swift: nesting

Swallows often nest in barns, dilapidated buildings, or other structures with a large enough access hole. They sculpt nests from pellets of mud mixed with straw and other plant matter. Their nests are often half-cups, bracketed high on a wall just below the ceiling. Sometimes they’ll make circular nest cups on top of beams or light fixtures.

They usually lay 4-5 eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch, with another three weeks for the young to leave the nest. Once the first group of juvenile swallows has fledged, the parents may start again – they can have two or three broods each summer.

Swift nests are very different. They nest out of sight, in holes and crevices in buildings. They also often use purpose-built swift nest boxes. Swift nests are shallow cups made from grass and other plant matter, as well as feathers, all of which is collected from the air! They usually lay just 2-3 eggs, which take almost three weeks to hatch. It also takes swift chicks longer to leave the nest, around 42 days on average. As a result, swifts only have one brood each year.

Swallow vs swift: threats

As long-distance migrants, swallows and swifts face a variety of threats throughout the year. One problem they are both experiencing is the decline of insects in the UK, which deprives them of the food they need to raise their chicks.

For swifts, things are made even more difficult by the challenge of finding a nest site. They’ve adapted to use gaps in our roofs, but modern buildings don’t have any of the nooks and crannies they need. Swifts are now on the UK’s Red List of threatened birds, which means there are real concerns for their future. We can help by adding swift nest boxes to our homes and providing habitats and protection for insects.

Get more tips for helping swifts and swallows in our Wild About Gardens booklet – Wild about high fliers.

Tom Hibbert is a birdwatcher and content officer for The Wildlife Trusts. Follow him on Twitter @TomHibbert54


Main image: swift (left), swallow (right) © Getty


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