The Swallow is undoubtedly one of the heralds of spring, as it arrives back into the whole of the European continent in early April. As with other mainly aerial feeders, Swallows can be encountered in any situation, from coastal marshes to urban streets.
Always active, the Swallow benefits from its association with man, frequently nesting on the side of houses, outbuildings or barns. When not flying to and from their mud nests, Swallows will sit on telegraph wires, chattering cheerfully, while rearranging their feathers, before floating off on another feeding sortie, either singly or in small groups.
Swallows can be separated from Swifts and House Martins by their size, more pointed wings, the manner of flight and obvious tail length.
The Swallow’s call is a tinkling and merry ‘vit vit’ or an occasional ‘splee-plink’ Their song is a strong, clear, rather fast and prolonged twittering warble.
Swallows have a small, rounded, deep glossy blue head, and a chestnut face. The blue extends to the rump, shoulders and upper breast, forming a neat band. The wings are blackish in appearance. The underparts from the lower breast to undertail-coverts are cream – and are a variable feature. The bill, eye and legs are all black.
The male Swallow is identical to the female in every respect, except for longer tail streamers. The bird depicted here has a particularly long set of tail streamers, and so is sexed as a male. This feature becomes obsolete as the season progresses and the feathers wear.
In the autumn, Swallows start to congregate on telegraph wires, TV aerials and roadside wires in preparation for their journey south of the Sahara. The noise can be overwhelming on occasion as they excitedly chatter ‘vit, vit, vit, vit’ to each other. Many hundreds, even thousands, will stop off at coastal reedbeds in the autumn, to feed on the profusion of airborne insects and to roost, in safety, amongst the reeds.
In flight, the most obvious feature will be the deeply forked tail which gives the Swallow such a graceful air. Notice also the white of the forewing, the pale belly and the white spots on the underside of the tail, which are particularly obvious as the Swallow fans its tail when banking. Otherwise the upperparts look wholly dark.
Juvenile Swallows are a duller blue on the upperparts, and the face is more dirty orange than chestnut. The breast band appears quite smudged, and the underparts are buffier than the adult’s. The tail streamers are very short. Very young fledglings may show one or two flecks of down on the head and a strong yellow gape.