This small to medium-sized bird has a plain sooty brown plumage often perceived as black in colour when seen soaring and gliding through the air. A small pale throat patch completes its make up. It is unlikely you will see one land as they spend their lives on the wing apart from when they nest, from May to June. They feed on the wing and even breed and sleep during flight. Their pointed scythe shaped wings and forked tail, coupled with their short head and tiny bill are an excellent aid to identification. Whilst difficult to observe in flight, they have minute feet with four forward-pointing toes rendering them unable to perch on overhead wires or small branches.
Swifts vocalise with a piercing screaming “shreee” call, particularly when flying in groups.
Common Swift call
Andrew Harrop, XC580244. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/580244.
Whilst the swift has a small beak it has a large gape enabling the bird to easily catch flying insects whilst it, itself, is also on the wing. It only feeds on small flying insects. Once caught these insects collect in a pouch at the back of the swift’s throat where they form a pellet that can be either swallowed or regurgitated to feed chicks.
The swift is our fastest bird in level flight almost reaching 70mph.
There are roughly 100 different species of swift around the world but only the Common Swift nests within the UK. Swifts generally arrive from sub-Saharan Africa in late April early May and depart in late August. They nest in May and June and prefer old buildings and small holes in roof spaces. Old barns and churches are ideal but modern houses no longer have open eaves and gables and this is having a detrimental effect on the birds with UK numbers falling. Swifts often return to the same nest year after year which they line with feathers, leaves and grasses they collect during flight then bond together with saliva. Once away from their nest they can be seen in any and every environment and region within the UK.
Once a chick leaves the nest it may be three years before its feet touch down again!
Don’t confuse the swift with the swallow or house martin which are both smaller and have a white underside. Swallows and house martins can also perch whilst swifts cannot. Their aerobatics whilst in large groups are wonderful to behold with rapid changes of speed and direction.
One brood of 2 – 3 smooth white eggs is laid in May or June and incubated in turn by both parents.
Due to the length of their legs, the shortest of any bird, swifts are unable to walk or take off from the ground.
The lifespan of the common swift is up to 10 years. The oldest ringed bird lived for at least 21 years.
Known collective nouns for a group of Swifts are as follows:
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.