What are the identifying features that allow you to tell the difference between these 3 common UK summer visitors?

I've been looking at the RSBP advice but it seems that a swift and a house martin are very similar if you only have a fleeting glimpse.

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    First check whether they are coconut-laden. Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 12:06

1 Answer 1


Swifts tend to fly higher than swallow and house martins, but the biggest giveaway is the noise they make. From almost the same page you linked you can listen to the audio file. A swift call is a screech, even a scream. You can quite often hear them before you see them (they tend to occur in decent numbers when the noise is almost non-stop) Swallows and house martins both make a softer, more twittering sound.

Visually the swift has much longer (and more curved) wings. It also has a longer tail (excluding the swallow's very thin streamer feathers which often can't been seen with the naked eye in high flight). The fork appears deeper too. To the naked eye, a swift is uniformly dark, while house martins and swallows both show significant pale areas on the underside (and may even come low enough for you to see this). The flight is different too -- swifts arc through the sky rather than flapping as much as the others.

The RSPB page sums up the difference in the nests. Basically if you see a mud nest it's not a swift.

Update: the British Trust for Ornithology has posted a video on YouTube addressing just this question.

  • This has been getting some attention again - it's that time of year. I haven't had the chance to watch the video myself yet.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 19:06
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    Thanks for posting that Chris. For people's information, it's a seven minute video with in depth and concise descriptions of each bird, and clear ways to tell them apart. The video and audio are both excellent quality. I definitely recommend it! Commented May 26, 2017 at 0:15
  • I agree with everything except the claim that a swift has a longer and more forked tail than a swallow. Swallow tails are if anything longer, at least relative to overall body length. Comparison photo here..
    – Pont
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 9:39
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    @Pont you're right in terms of total length. I was omitting the swallow's streamer as it's not normally visible in flight with the naked eye -- too far away.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 9:47

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