Is That a Swallow or a Swift?

Telling the two apart can be tough, but one clue lies in how they fly.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

Swirling overhead, dozens of birds swoop and glide in pursuit of insects. Are they swallows or swifts? How in the world do you tell them apart?

At a glance, swallows and swifts look much alike. They’re graceful fliers on long, slender wings and all about the same size. But a closer look reveals key differences: swifts have longer, even slimmer, wings and relatively shorter bodies. Swifts also glide for longer periods. Their glides are punctuated by rapid, stiff bursts of wing-beats—movements so brisk, their wings seem to flicker. Swallows, on the other hand, flex and flap their wings.

Why do swifts have such a peculiar, stiff wing stroke? Picture a typical bird wing, with two halves jointed in the middle. A swift’s wing reveals an inner “half” that’s extremely short, and an outer portion that’s very long. This causes the stiffness. Try waving your arms with your elbows held against your body, and you’ll get the idea.

Another group of birds shares this distinctive wing structure: hummingbirds. And swifts are considered to be closely related to hummingbirds. Swallows, on the other hand are songbirds, closer kin of birds like robins and wrens.

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.


Freebie Alert! Having trouble identifying more than just swifts and swallows? Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App to start learning 821 North American species and their songs today. 



Written by Bob Sundstrom

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. 66813 recorded by William W. H. Gunn, 223902 recorded by Peter Paul Kellogg and Karm Parker, and 84826 recorded by Wilbur L. Hershberger.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2017 Tune In to Nature.org

July/August 2017    ID#  swallow-swift-01-2017-08-17    swallow-swift-01

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