Quick facts

Common names: swallow, barn swallow

Scientific name: Hirundo rustica

Family: Hirundinidae (swallows and martins)

Habitat: grassland, heathland, woodland, towns

Diet: flies and aphids

Predators: birds of prey, especially hobbies

Origin: native

What do swallows look like?

Swallows are dark blue with a cream underside. Their characteristic tail has two distinctive streamers when in flight, and they have long blue-black wings which appear curved and slender when perched. They have a dark throat and forehead (more of a rusty-buff colour in juveniles) and a blue-black nape and crown. 

Not to be confused with: swifts, house martins and sand martins. Swifts are dark brown, sickle-shaped and lack the creamy underside. House martins are a similar colour but have a tell-tale white rump. Both house martins and sand martins also have much shorter tails.

Credit: Our Wild Life Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

What do swallows eat?

Swallows feed on flies and aphids, which they catch as they fly. They drink by skimming low over lakes or rivers and scooping up water with their open beaks.

Did you know?

Until the late 19th century, some people believed that swallows hibernated underwater.

How do swallows breed?

Female swallows choose mates with the most symmetrical tail streamers, as this is a sign of good health and good genes to pass on to chicks.

Swallows produce two or three clutches of around four eggs per year. They build their cup-like nests on sheltered ledges, beams and joists in sheds and outbuildings. Each nest is constructed from mud interwoven with grasses and may be reused season after season.

Chicks fledge after a few weeks but will continue to be fed by their parents for a while longer.

Credit: Phil Savoie / naturepl.com

Do swallows migrate?

The swallow is a summer visitor to the UK and one of the latest to leave after breeding. They arrive in April, and most depart by late September, crossing the Sahara desert to reach their wintering grounds in southern Africa.

Where do swallows live?

Swallows are found in open country, usually near water and farmland where flying insects are abundant. They also gather in restless flocks in autumn and can be seen collecting together on telephone wires, often with martins.

Credit: Chris Gomersall / naturepl.com

Signs and spotting tips

Look out for swallows throughout the summer as they fly overhead, or bring food to nests beneath eaves. Their chattering call helps distinguish them from screaming swifts when in flight. As autumn approaches, groups of swallows will also congregate at roosting sites such as reed beds.

Swallow song

Audio: Craig Brookes / xeno-canto.org

Did you know?

One swallow was recorded as having flown 12,000 kilometres from Johannesburg to Russia in just 34 days.

Did you know?

Swallows often nested in chimneys before the advent of central heating.

Threats and conservation

Changing farming practices and the effects of climate change are thought to be reducing insect abundance across Europe, causing knock-on declines in swallow numbers.