Apus apus

Aerial mastery of the highest order, these birds have adapted superbly to their environment.



What does a Swift look like?

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.


What does a Swift sound like?

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.

What does a Swift eat?

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.

Did you know?

The swift is our fastest bird in level flight almost reaching 70mph.


Where can I see Swifts?

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.

Did you know?

Once a chick leaves the nest it may be three years before its feet touch down again!


Signs and spotting tips

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.

How does a Swift breed?

One brood of 2 – 3 smooth white eggs is laid in May or June and incubated in turn by both parents.


Did you know?

Due to the length of their legs, the shortest of any bird, swifts are unable to walk or take off from the ground.

How long do Swifts live for?

The lifespan of the common swift is up to 10 years. The oldest ringed bird lived for at least 21 years.

What is a group of Swifts called?

Known collective nouns for a group of Swifts are as follows:

  • a box of swifts
  • a drift of swifts
  • a flock of swifts
  • a screaming frenzy of swifts
  • a swoop of swifts

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Apus apus



Conservation status:




16cm to 17cm


42cm to 48cm


36g to 50g

Learn more about the Swift

Similar birds to a Swift

Other birds in the Swifts family

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