10 things you might not know about swifts

A juvenile swift on a wooden wall

Swifts really are the birds of the moment. After a long flight back from Africa, where they spend more than half the year, many swifts have now returned to the UK to scream and scythe their way across our skies.

A juvenile swift on a wooden wall

If 'your' swifts aren't back yet, don't worry: swifts will continue to arrive throughout May, so keep scanning the skies for that unmistakable sickle-winged shape, and listening out for those calls.

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(Mike Langman, rspb-images.com)

Swifts are a sooty brown, with a pale throat. Unlike the swallow’s long tail, the swift’s tail is short and forked. They rarely, if ever, touch the ground, eating, sleeping and mating on the wing. And if you think that sounds impressive, wait... there's more!

Here's a round up of our ten favourite swift facts.


Swifts have a typical life span of nine years. One bird in Oxford was found dying in 1964, 16 years after it was ringed as an adult, so was likely to be at least 18 years old. This bird probably flew about four million miles in its lifetime, the same as flying to the moon and back eight times.


Swifts have four toes, arranged in twos, with each pair pointing sideways rather than forwards, a bit like a chameleon or a koala.


They use saliva for building their nests in roof spaces and cavities.


The swift probably eats more species of small insect and spiders than any other UK bird – well over 300.


Swifts drink by gliding over smooth water whilst taking sips, and bathe by flying slowly through falling rain.

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Swifts very rarely land, but they have to for nesting of course (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)


Their eyes have moveable bristles in front – sunglasses for reducing glare when they are on the wing.


Swifts can sleep on the wing – a French Airman in the 1914-18 war glided down with engines off behind enemy lines. At 10,000 feet he found himself amongst apparently motionless birds. One of them was caught in the machine and on the following day was found to be an adult male swift.


When they are about a month old, baby swifts do ‘press ups’ in the nest to strengthen their wings. They lift themselves up by pushing down on their wings. By the time they’re ready to go, they can hold their bodies clear off the ground like this for several seconds.


Each ball of food that the parents bring to their babies weighs just over a gram and contains 300-1,000 individual insects and spiders.


There are eight species of swift on the British list. Our familiar swift is the only one that that breeds here, but there are six other rare visitors. The Alpine swift is a big swift with white underparts and throat, but the pallid swift is extremely similar to “our” swift. The little swift lives up to its name and has a white rump like a house martin. Then there are the really rare ones: Pacific swift, white-rumped swift, chimney swift from North America and the awesome, and incredibly fast, white-throated needletail.

Tell us about your nesting swifts

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We’d like to know where you’ve seen groups of screaming swifts flying low over buildings, or swift nest sites anywhere in the UK. If you’ve sent in records before, please tell us what’s happening again this year – even if swifts are absent from nest sites they used previously – as it’s important to know if breeding colonies are stable.

Watch out for... groups of swifts flying fast at roof height, often screaming loudly – this means they’re breeding nearby. Swifts nest in holes, so we’d also like to know if you see swifts entering holes in buildings.

Please don’t report swifts flying high in the sky, feeding over water or fields, or away from settlements on Swift Mapper. These birds could have travelled long distances and may not be local breeding birds.

Your information will increase the RSPB's knowledge of swifts, so that more nest sites can be provided and protected for these beautiful birds during their short, but very important time spent in the UK.



Have a great swift summer!