House Martins share our homes and towns each summer when they return from Africa to nest. These elegant little acrobats raise their families under our eaves and hunt for small flying insects in the skies above us.
Juvenile House Martin
House Martin chicks peeking out of their nest
House Martin in-flight
Pair of House Martins by waterside
House Martin collecting nesting materials
House Martin in-flight carrying nesting materials in its beak
Common House Martin, Northern House Martin
Family:Swallows and martins
12cm to 14cm
26cm to 29cm
15g to 23g
The House Martin is a neat, compact member of the Swallow family with metallic blue upperparts, white underparts and characteristic downy legs. They have black wings, a black tail, and a conspicuous white rump. Their tail is forked but does not end in long streaming feathers like the Swallow.
Male and female House Martins are very similar in breeding plumage. Juveniles can be identified by their shorter tails and duller (browner) plumage.
The House Martin is very similar in profile to the Sand Martin, although that species has brown upper parts and a clear band across its upper breast.
House Martin in natural habitat
House Martins are small birds, similar in size but more compact than the Swallow.
House Martins have a body length of 12 to 14 centimeters, with very little difference between males and females.
They weigh 15 to 23 grams, with an average of 18 grams in the United Kingdom.
These agile birds have broad, triangular wings and a 26 to 29 centimeter wingspan.
House Martin flying at great speed
House Martins are vocal birds that produce various chirps and twittering notes. They also make one or two-noted contact calls and high-pitched or hissing alarm and distress calls.
House Martin standing on stony ground chirping
House Martins eat flying insects like flies, aphids and beetles. They forage in flocks, fairly high above the ground, and catch their prey directly with their beaks. Occasionally, these birds will follow farmers' ploughs and livestock in search of the insects they disturb.
Nestling House Martins eat the same small flying invertebrates as adult birds. They are fed by both parents for the four weeks or so that they spend in the nest and then for a further few days before becoming independent.
House Martin feeding its chick at the nest
House Martins nest and forage around farmland, meadows and other open habitats, often near towns and villages. They are often attracted to wetlands and other freshwater habitats.
House Martins occur practically throughout the United Kingdom, with the exception of parts of northern Scotland. Elsewhere they occur throughout most of Europe, west to Mongolia in Asia and south to Central and Southern Africa.
House Martins are a commensal species, which means they are generally associated with people. While you might spot them in remote wilderness areas, these agile birds are most at home over farmland and even towns and villages.
House Martins are tireless in flight and spend much of the day wheeling through the skies in pursuit of insects. They also descend to the ground to collect mud for their nests and sometimes to feed on terrestrial invertebrates.
Despite worrying declines, House Martins remain common in the United Kingdom, with approximately half a million breeding pairs visiting each spring.
House Martins are very widespread in the United Kingdom. Look out for flocks of small, agile birds hunting fairly high above the ground in the vicinity of towns, villages, and farmland, especially near water.
House Martin in-flight in pursuit of insects
House Martins are short-lived birds with a typical lifespan of about two years, although they can live for over 14 years.
Agile birds of prey like the Sparrowhawk and Hobby are the adult House Martins’ most serious threats. Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Tawny Owls have been known to break into their nests to eat eggs and chicks.
House Martins are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As such, it is an offence to disturb or harm these birds, their eggs or their active nests.
House Martins are listed as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List. Unfortunately, these birds have a decreasing global population trend and local declines have resulted in their inclusion on the United Kingdom’s red list.
House Martin collecting mud for nest building
House Martins evolved to nest on cliffs, although they have learned that buildings and other artificial structures like bridges offer a better alternative. They usually nest in small colonies of a handful of pairs, although they may also spread themselves out or nest singly.
You can attract House Martins to nest around your home by installing nest cups. These are commercially available, or you can build your own from cement and sawdust. Fix your nest cups under the eaves in a quiet part of your building, not above a door or window.
House Martins usually nest between May and August in the United Kingdom, producing two broods each year. The female lays a single egg each day until her clutch is complete, and both parents incubate them for 14 to 16 days. The young Martins are ready to fledge the nest after 22 to 32 days.
House Martins typically lay four or five plain white eggs, each measuring approximately 19 millimetres long and 13 millimetres wide.
House Martins form monogamous pairs and return to use the same nest each year. Infidelity is common, however, and up to a third of all broods have different fathers.
House Martin in cliffside nest
House Martins are gregarious birds that often nest in small colonies and feed together in flocks. However, they will defend their nest aggressively against other intruding House Martins or Swifts. Unfortunately, they are not aggressive enough to protect their space against House Sparrows, which occasionally steal their nests.
House Martins sleep in trees and in their nests. They may be able to sleep on the wing during migration and while overwintering.
House Martin resting on a branch
House Martins are long-distance migrants that breed in the UK and spend the winter in Africa. These birds migrate between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and thus avoid the cold of winter and a shortage of flying insects.
A warming climate may be responsible for the House Martin arriving slightly earlier and leaving slightly later from its summer breeding grounds. However, climate change could also negatively affect these birds as they are susceptible to extreme weather events during migration.
House Martins are native to the United Kingdom, although they are only present during the warmer months. These birds have not been introduced outside of their natural range.
House Martins arrive in the United Kingdom as early as the end of March, although most arrive in April. They have a long nesting season, and late breeders depart as late as October.
Swallows usually arrive back in the United Kingdom before House Martins, although there is little difference, and the Martins may return before the Swallows in some areas and years.
House Martin in-flight
House Martins differ from Swallows by being slightly smaller, having white (not blue and red) throats, and a moderately forked tail without long feathers on either side. House Martins have a large white patch on their lower back (rump), and this is another reliable marker to help distinguish between these two common migrants.
House Martins and Swallows are both from the Hirundinidae family. Despite being from different genera, the two are closely related enough to interbreed and hybridise, and this happens fairly often in nature.
The Eurasian crag martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) is a small grey-brown member of the swallow family, found across southern Europe, north Africa. An exceptionally rare visitor to UK skies, crag martins are a common sight in rocky landscapes of southern Spain and Portugal.
The Barn Swallow is one of the world's most widespread birds, and many birdwatchers eagerly await their return each spring. Known simply as the Swallow in the United Kingdom, these migratory birds have different plumages but similar life histories in the New and Old Worlds.
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