What's the difference between swallows, swifts and martins?

HAVING tried for years to work out exactly the differences between three quite similar migrant birds, I enlisted the help of BirdWatch Ireland, of late, writes Donal Hickey

Every day during the summer, swallows, swifts and martins fly around the place, gobbling up midges and flies.

Which is which? Let’s make it as simple as possible. The swallow’s main identifying mark is its long, forked tail. It makes a twittering sound — flying low when rain is on the way and high up when the weather is good. It nests in sheds and barns.

The swift has a slightly forked tail, not as long as the swallow’s, and makes a piercing cry. One of the fastest birds in flight, it can be seen swooping low around buildings and generally nests in cavities in buildings.

The house martin nests mainly under eaves of houses and its upper part is blue, like the swallow, but its white rump is distinct. Its tail is also forked, though smaller than the swallow’s. Sand martins are similar in shape to house martins and, as the name suggests, nest in sand banks and quarries.

BirdWatch Ireland is undertaking the third year of swift surveys on behalf of the OPW at heritage sites throughout the country. Locations include the Rock of Cashel and Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary; Dun Aonghasa, Aran Islands; Castletown House, Co Kildare, and Altamont Gardens, Co Carlow. So far, swifts have been found at most of the sites.

Because of the ancient nature of OPW sites, they often provide suitable nesting areas for swifts which need a small entrance gap that opens to a larger cavity in a wall where they make a small nest cup. These gaps are plentiful at many historic sites.

With swift chicks now hatched and growing bigger by the day, activity at nest sites is rising, offering an opportunity to note exact sites. People are being asked to take part in the online survey by checking historic buildings in their localities and reporting any new sites to BirdWatch.

Modern construction trends, which seal buildings tightly, are making it difficult for swifts to find nesting sites. They are losing many old sites and, as a result, swift numbers have declined here by 40% in the last 20 years, surveys find.

People can help, however. A project by IRD Duhallow in North Cork, for example, has involved the placing of 24 swift boxes into the upper walls of the outbuildings at the James O’Keeffe Institute in Newmarket. Upwards of 60 other entrances and boxes can also be found around Newmarket.

About 15,000 pairs of swifts come to Ireland annually to breed and then head off to southern Africa for the winter, returning again the following year to the same nest hole.


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