Swifts, swallows and martins are, in many ways, the epitome of summer. They are migrant birds which arrive back in this country during the spring time; they have a wonderful fast and acrobatic flight; they are easily seen and they disappear again in the autumn.
Despite our familiarity with this group of birds confusion between them seems to be accepted but it isn’t too difficult to tell them apart.
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How to identify swifts, swallows and martins
Swifts are large, dark birds with sickle-shaped wings and a screaming call, they usually fly high in the sky often above towns where they nest in the roof spaces of old buildings, they never land except at the nest site.
Swallows are dark and iridescent above and white below, they have a chestnut-red throat and long tail-streamers (juveniles being an exception), they make cup-shaped mud nests in open-fronted out-buildings.
Sand martins are smaller, they are brown above and white below with shallow forked-tails, they nest in holes which they dig into sandy banks.
This leaves the house martin, a small, chunky bird with dark iridescent blue plumage above and white beneath. Unlike the swallow, house martins have a short forked-tail and a completely white rump (on top as well as beneath) which is usually distinctive in flight.
Like the swallow the house martin makes a mud nest but unlike the swallow their nests are always closed-in except for one entrance hole at the top.
House martin nesting sites
House martin nests are almost always constructed under the eaves of houses.
House martins don’t tend to nest alone but their colonies can be quite loosely connected so you may find several nests under the eaves of one house or you may find one on each of several close houses.
House martins can be quite vocal particularly around their nest sites. Their voice is high-pitched and can sound a bit like a sparrow but it also has quite a trilling sound.
Artificial house martin nests are available commercially. These can be placed under the eaves of your house and are most likely to be successful if there are house martins already nesting nearby.
If you can spread a bit of mud around the entrance hole it makes the nest more attractive to prospecting martins but I must confess I have only ever attracted house sparrows.
One strategy which favours house martins over house sparrows is to hang weighted strings in front of the nest before the breeding season commences, this might work because house martins can cope with a vertical approach to their nest whilst sparrows cannot.
Related: Exotic birds of Britain