Breeding throughout mountainous regions of southern Europe and across to the Himalayas these birds are migratory, overwintering in southern Africa or central India. Worldwide, there are a total of ten subspecies from the nominate species, apus melba.
The alpine swift is a very large swift with broad wings and a short, forked tail. Upper parts, including the head on the adult bird, are olive-brown.
The chin and throat are white, and there is a large white patch covering the breast and both flanks, separated from the throat by an olive-brown breast band extending down from the head and circling the base of the bird’s neck. The lower belly area and vent are olive-brown with the undertail coverts a darker brown than the rest of the body.
The bill is tiny and very dark in colour, and the legs and feet are small and short. Adult males and females are similar in appearance.
Alpine Swift in flight
The Alpine swift comes from the family Apodidae, which is ancient Greek for ‘without feet’, due to the fact that these birds have extremely short legs and small feet which are almost impossible to see when the bird is in flight.
It is also very rare to see an alpine swift alight on the ground. These amazing birds can eat and drink on the wing and may stay aloft without touching the ground for extraordinarily long periods of up to seven months!
They are often seen in flocks where they emit a loud rising and falling metallic trilling chorus of ‘peee – ti – ti – tititititititi - ti – ti’.
Alpine Swift call
Sidney M, XC573659. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/573659.
Close up of an Alpine Swift
Although the alpine swift is equipped with a very tiny beak it has an extremely large mouth in comparison which enables it to catch flying insects whilst it itself is in flight. Their diet consists of bees, wasps, lacewings, cicadas, aphids and butterflies.
Alpine swifts and their subspecies can be found in southern Europe, Morocco, Libya, Asia minor, western, eastern and southern Africa, Madagascar, Middle East, Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka and have even been reported in China.
The alpine swift is a particularly graceful bird in the air with large broad wings, often swept back in a ‘boomerang shape, as it glides, swoops and soars in its almost continuous ariel ballet. Look out for its prominent white underbelly and flanks.
Frequently seen in large flocks flying low in Mediterranean climes, many of those breeding in temperate zones will migrate to Africa to over winter, attaining vast heights as they do so.
Nesting takes place in shallow cups of grass and feathers ‘cemented’ together with spittle on cliff tops and in crags or holes in buildings and often forms part of a larger nesting colony.
Between 1 and 4 eggs are laid, usually 3 and incubated for a period of 3 weeks. Fledging occurs some 53 to 66 days after hatching. Pairs mate for life and will return to the same nest year after year.
Life expectancy for alpine swifts is between ten to fifteen years.
20cm to 23cm
The pallid swift is an extremely social bird and will often flock with other species of the same family. They are masters of the air and can, eat, drink, mate and rest on the wing, nesting only to produce young. There are three sub-species with the largest number of birds found within the Mediterranean region.
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