20 July 2022
Whoosh! Fast moving birds circle, swoop, rise and fall as they eat flying insects. Swallows and swifts move so fast that it’s hard to identify them in flight. With one swift and six swallow species in our area(*) the first step is to decide: “Is that a Swallow or a Swift?“
This stop-action photo by Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) makes it easy to see the differences described by audubon.org below.
Chimney swift and male tree swallow bronx county pic.twitter.com/sF9w3VF1Bh— Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) May 13, 2022
Is That a Swallow or a Swift? Identification clues from Audubon.org.
- Color: If the bird has any color, it’s a swallow. Chimney swifts are dark brown all over (see top image). Many swallows are colorful or iridescent. Most have white bellies.
- Shape: Chimney swifts are shaped like sickles with long skinny wings and almost no tail: “cigars with wings.” Swallows have tails, sometimes fanned open, and their wings are relatively thick near the body and tapering to the tip.
- Flight style: Chimney swifts flap their stiff wings so fast that they look like they flip on their body axis. Swallows bend their wings as they flap in “swallow-like” flight.
- Perched? If the bird is perched or standing on the ground it’s a swallow. Chimney swifts cannot stand on the ground and cannot perch at all except to cling upright inside a chimney.
- How high in the sky? “Swifts fly in the upper part of the air column as they hunt; swallows pursue insects closer to the ground or water.“
Even from a distance these two swallow plates from Crossley ID show many features that are different from the chimney swifts at top.
And finally, chimney swifts make a unique chittering sound in flight.
Swallow or swift? You’ll get plenty of practice in the coming weeks as the birds gather for fall migration.
(*) p.s. Here are the swallow and swift species that occur in our area — southwestern Pennsylvania.
- Swifts (family Apodidae, nearest relatives are hummingbirds)
- Chimney Swift Chaetura pelagica
- Swallows (family Hirundinidae)
(photos from Patrick bx (@bronxfxdc) embedded tweet & the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)