Swifts, Swallows and Martins

Swifts belong to the family Apodidae, whilst Swallows and Martins are Hirundinidae, and although not closely related, certainly bear a superficial resemblance to each other. They are migratory, arriving in the Loire area in the spring and departing again in late summer or autumn. They zoom about the sky catching insects and continually and characteristically vocalising.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica: Flies low over crops and meadows catching flies and even the occasional dragonfly. Often seen perched on overhead wires, especially in late summer when juveniles start to gather and the flocks amalgamate ready for the migration back to Africa. Emits a constant stream of chattering, whirring and buzzing noises both in the air and at rest. They nest inside buildings on ledges against a wall. They are a glossy deep blue with rusty red bib, blue breast band and white belly. Adults have long 'streamers' on their tails. They arrive in March/April, often returning again and again to the same nest site, and depart with their multiple broods in September/October. Below, photographed in the Brenne, June. The adults are hunting over the reeds of the Etang de la Gabriere, juveniles are on the ground or in a tree near the Maison du Parc.

Juveniles in the grounds of the Chateau de la Chatonniere.
Juvenile Barn Swallows (and some House Martins) gathering on the electricity wires outside our home in Preuilly sur Claise in the autumn prior to their first migration to Africa.
House Martin Delichon urbica: Glossy blue-black above, pure white below, white rump, forked tail. Hunts insects on the wing over agricultural land, near water and woodland . Makes a mud nest under the eaves of buildings. They arrive here in April to breed during the summer and depart in October to spend the winter in Africa. This species appears in the Touraine some days after the first Barn Swallows arrive back in the spring. Their numbers have declined dramatically (over 40% in the last 25 years), due to reduced numbers of insects in Europe. (Fr. Hirondelle de fenĂȘtre) and a reduction in suitable nesting spots (despite it being illegal to destroy their nests).  They eat 'aerial plankton', mainly gnats and aphids.
House Martin in the nest on the chateau of Chenonceau.
House Martin and nest on the chateau of Chenonceau.
On the Chateau of Chenonceau.
Feeding young on the chateau of Chenonceau.
Leaving the nest on the Chateau of Chenonceau.
Leaving the nest on the Chateau of Chenonceau.
A juvenile pokes its head out from the nest. You can clearly see the method of construction using small balls of mud, and the way the nests are tucked in just under the eaves.
Common Swift Apus apus: In French le Martinet noir. Larger than the previous two species. 'Apus' means 'footless' and the bird is so named because the ancients believed swifts had no feet. They do in fact have very short legs and will cling on to the vertical surfaces of walls, but if you see one on the ground it is in trouble. They are about 16 cm long with a wingspan of 40 cm. They are blackish brown with a white chin, short forked tail and wings that form a crescent when flying. The birds are very noticeable as they fly in groups, wheeling and screaming. With the loss of ancient woodland and the resulting hollow trees, swifts are almost entirely dependent on manmade nest sites, especially gaps under eaves and in roofspaces. The same pairs return to the same nest sites. The nest is made from bits of flying feather and hair, vegetative material and cobwebs caught on the wing and glued together with saliva. They eat insects and spend almost all of their lives on the wing (more than any other bird). They can fly at speeds of above 100 km/hour. The species migrates to the Loire Valley from Africa to breed.

Swift nest boxes installed under the eaves of a house in Amboise.
Swift nest boxes installed in the window recess of a house overlooking the Loire in Amboise.
Measuring up prior to installing swift nest boxes under the eaves on a north facing barn wall in Preuilly.
The interior of a swift nest box, showing the glued in ring to give the swifts a head start. Because they catch their nesting material on the wing it can take them quite a long time to build a nest.
Swifts don't like to nest below 5 m  above ground so you need to find someone with a long ladder to install nest boxes for them.
Fixing swift nest boxes under the eaves of a barn in Preuilly.
Swift nest boxes under the eaves on the north facing side of a barn in Preuilly.
Swift nest boxes can be very unobtrusive on a building (even more so if you use a special hollow brick insert type).
Just about to fix a swift nest box under the eaves of a barn in Preuilly.

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