Lookalike birds - Swifts, Swallows and Martins

Lookalike birds - Swifts, Swallows and Martins

David Tipling/2020VISION

Is it a bird, is it a plane? Well, it's probably a bird...but which one is it? Do you know your swifts from your swallows?

David Tipling/2020VISION


The swift is a fast-flying and distinctive bird with long, curved wings. Originally nesting on cliffs and in holes in trees, it now mainly nests in buildings, such as churches, and is particularly common in older parts of towns and cities. Swifts spend the winter in Africa, with the first birds usually returning to the UK in April, though most don't arrive until May.

What do they look like?

The swift is black all over, with a small, pale patch on its throat. Looking a bit like a boomerang when in the air, it is very sociable and can often be spotted in groups wheeling over roofs and calling to each other with high-pitched screams.

It is larger than swallows and martins (which have white undersides) and, unlike them, does not perch on wires, buildings or trees.

Swifts fly extremely high, and extremely fast! No other bird can fly faster in level flight. They spend their lives in the air - sleeping, mating and drinking on the wing - and won’t land or perch, though can sometimes cling to a high vertical surface. They avoid coming anywhere near the ground. 

Learn more about Swifts


Josh Kubale


The swallow, or 'barn swallow', is a common summer visitor, arriving in April and leaving in October. It builds mud and straw nests on ledges, often in farm buildings and outhouses, or under the eaves of houses.

They are agile fliers, feeding on flying insects while on the wing. Before they migrate back to their wintering grounds in Africa, they can be seen gathering to roost in wetlands, particularly reedbeds.

What do they look like?

The swallow is a glossy, dark blue-black above and white below, with a dark red forehead and throat, and a black band across its chest. It has a very long, forked tail. Often spotted perching on wires in small numbers.

They tend to fly lower and slower than swifts. Their flying style is darting and gliding, often low to the ground or at treetop height. They often tweet and chirrup from perches. 

Learn more about swallows

Sand martin

WildNet - Margaret Holland

Sand Martin

The sand martin is a common summer visitor to the UK, arriving in March and leaving in October. It nests in colonies, digging burrows in steep, sandy cliffs, usually around water, and is commonly found on wetland sites, such as Brockholes.

Sand martins are sociable birds and will nest together in summer and gather to roost in large numbers in autumn; eventually they migrate to Africa to spend the winter.

What do they look like?

Our smallest swallow, the sand martin is brown above and white below, with a brown band across its breast and a short, forked tail.

A sand martins flying style is twirling and flapping, with less of the gliding. They fly mainly over water, and will also perch on overhead wires or branches. 

Learn more about Sand Martins

House martin

Dawn Monrose

House Martin

The house martin is a common summer visitor to the UK, arriving in April and leaving in October. It builds mud nests, sometimes in small colonies, under ledges, on cliffs and, as their name suggests, under the eaves of houses. House martins are commonly found in towns and villages, as well as in agricultural areas. 

What do they look like?

House martins are smaller than swifts or swallows, with a white underside and ‘trousers’, and blue-black upper - except for the  the white rump on its back. They have a short, forked tail.

Most active in morning and evening when they zoom around at mid-height, usually together in flocks, coming down low over the water and fluttering in and out of house eaves, chirruping softly. 

Learn more about house martins