How to tell a house martin from a sand martin, a swallow and a swift

When the sky is full of small birds whizzing about catching insects, it’s not always easy to tell them apart. This quick ID guide should help you spot the difference.

Charlie Fleming.IMGP5340House martin

House martins are small, rather stiff-winged birds with a jerky flight. They are blue-black on top and white below with a small forked tail. The clincher though is the white rump. If you see that, it’s a house martin.


Look out for the red throat on a swallow though it’s not always easy to spot. The tail has long streamers and its flight is more fluid than a house martin.


Swifts are Formula 1 birds – listen out for their ear-splitting screams as they race across our skies in search of insects. They are actually dark brown with a pale chin but they appear black when they are flying. And if it lands, it’s not a swift – they only ever come to earth when they fly inside houses to nest.

Sand_Martin_R_Otter_9.4.15_Mark_DyerSand Martin

You are unlikely to see sand martins unless you live near water. They nest colonially in holes in river banks not on houses. They are small brown birds with a distinctive brown chest band and they lack the white rump of the house martin.