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.
Adult pallid swifts have broad swept back wings with dark brown rounded wingtips (when compared to the pointed wing tips of the Alpine or Common Swift) and a short, forked tail. The upperparts are predominantly mid brown with a paler brown band extending diagonally from the primary wing coverts towards the lesser coverts. The tail is very dark, almost black. The underwing areas are a buff or light brown with pale edges to the feathers and the underside of the body is dark brown with a pale brown scalloped effect, giving the impression of scales. The head is brown with a grey brown cap and face and white throat and chin. The dark grey bill is very small hiding a large wide mouth and the legs and feet are tiny with all four toes pointing forwards. Adult males and females are similar in size and plumage. Juveniles have a mottled patter on the upper parts with light brown/cream feather edges.
Most species of swift vocalise in loud screams and the pallid swift is no different although the pitch of its call is generally lower and similar in sound to ‘ssrrreee - ssrrree’.
Pallid Swift call
Renato Bagarrão, XC623681. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/623681.
Pallid Swift in flight
Pallid swifts feed on the wing catching prey in their beaks. Their diet consists of a range of flying insects including beetles, mosquitoes, small flies and flying ants and even drifting spiders. They also drink on the wing and the sight of them swooping down to the surface of a lake or reservoir and dipping their bills to scoop up water is commonplace.
Pallid Swift flying
Whilst breeding on the Atlantic islands of the Canaries and Madeira, they are widespread throughout the European Mediterranean coastal regions and islands, including the Balearics, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Crete, the Dodecanese and Cyprus. Additionally, they have breeding grounds in Gibraltar, north Africa, Israel, the Arabian Peninsula and Iran.
Pallid Swift in flight
Pallid swifts are seldom seen north of their European habitats and apart from resident colonies in Egypt, and dependent upon the location of their breeding grounds, they migrate to sub-Saharan Africa or south east Asia during winter months. Migration patterns vary but most birds return north from Africa between February to May and fly south again between August and November. They are often mistaken for common swifts, particularly from a distance. It is unlikely to find a pallid swift on the ground as with all swifts the legs are unable to support the bird’s body weight sufficiently to walk and life is spent predominantly in the air. The bird’s tiny feet are simply used to cling on to rough surfaces as they negotiate passage to their nests but they are unable to perch on branches or overhead cables.
A group of Pallid Swifts
Nests are often in unlined cavities in roof spaces, caves or cliff faces but are also constructed of grasses or straw and feathers in an oval shape glued together to form a strong shell and stuck to the surrounding area, such as eaves, with spittle. Throughout the range of the breeding grounds one or two broods are produced annually between March to July when 2 – 3 eggs are laid and incubated for up to three weeks before hatching. Fledging occurs at around forty five days.
Pallid Swift on the ground
The lifespan of the pallid swift is between ten to fifteen years.
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.