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How to tell a swift from a swallow, house martin, or sand martin

– Swifts are unrelated to swallows or martins (hirundines). They are distantly related to hummingbirds.
– Swifts are not perching birds (passerines), so you will never see a swift perched on a telephone wire, or a tree, or anywhere else!
– Swifts are all dark brown (apart from a small pale patch under their chins), whereas swallows and martins have large white or buff areas of plumage. NB: because you often see swifts silhouetted against a bright sky, they will often appear all black.
– Swifts have very much longer, narrow wings that are swept back to form a characteristic crescent scythe or sickle shape.
– Swifts do not build visible mud nests. They make minimalist little saucer-shaped nests of feathers completely hidden away, high up in gaps under roof tiles and eaves.
– Swifts do not twitter like swallows and martins. They have a high-pitched, excited ‘scream’ as they glide and swoop high in the sky, hunting flying insects and tiny floating spiders, or when they gather in groups for thrilling, roof-skimming aerobatic displays, especially in the evening or early morning during warm, sunny, summer weather.

Swifts are here for only three months of the year, from early May to late July, making them the last of our summer migrant bird species to arrive, and the first to leave. They come here to breed after spending nine months on migration in central and southern Africa.


Swifts score top marks in the bird world for many of their other characteristics:
• They are the world’s most aerial birds: they spend all their lives in the air, touching down only to breed at their nest sites high up in buildings.
• They are the world’s fastest bird in level flight – in other words, in powered forward flight – with a top speed so far recorded of 69.57 miles per hour. (This is in contrast to other famously fast birds such as the peregrine, which achieves its astonishing speeds aided by gravity in a downward ‘stoop’ or dive). 
• Swifts have the longest wing-to-body-length ratio of any bird. This gives them their incredible aerodynamic performance.
• Swifts eat, drink and sleep on the wing, and can even mate in the air.
• Swiftlets do ‘wing press-ups’ in the nest to strengthen their wing muscles before they fledge. When they take off for the first time, they will not touch down again for at least two years.
• Swifts are the UK’s most nest-site faithful bird. They return to the same nesting place year after year for life.
• Swifts are the most building-dependent bird in the UK: they rely on our buildings for nesting places.

Where are our swifts in the winter?

They will be preparing for the 7,000-mile journey home from Central Africa. Our UK swifts mostly take the ‘western route’ from Africa over the Strait of Gibraltar and up through Spain and France.

Look to the skies toward the end of April where some ‘early birds’ may appear, before the majority arrive home in May. Keep your ears open too, as you are likely to hear them first, and then look up to see if you can spot them high in the sky! 

Click here to listen to the sound of swift calls.

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