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ALL ABOUT SWALLOWS AND MARTINS

What are swallows and martins like?

The different species of swallows and martins have different shapes and colours, but they are very beautiful birds. They have a slender, streamlined body with long, pointed wings that allow them to perform extraordinary aerial manoeuvres, either to hunt their prey or to perform long flights during migrations. Swallows and martins' eyes are large relative to the size of their body and they have a keen eyesight. Swallows and martins have short beaks but strong jaws and a very wide mouth.

What kind of animal is a swallow?

Swallows and martins are birds belonging to the order Passeriformes, such as robins, blackbirds and tits. Within the Passeriformes order, they belong to the Hirundinidae family, the avian family that comprises the 93 species of swallows and martins that exist in the world.

Where do swallows live?

Swallows and martins exist all over the planet, except in permanently frozen areas and in some oceanic islands. Different species of swallows and martins can be found in different parts of the globe.

With whom do they live?

Some bird species tend to have solitary lives and only gather in pairs for mating. Swallows and martins, however, seem to realise the advantage of forming flocks and so it is common for them to gather to hunt or to look for places to spend the night, thus forming roosts where thousands of swallows and martins may gather. Furthermore, they may also build their nests close to each other in nesting colonies.

How long does a swallow live?

The average life expectancy of swallows and martins is 3 to 8 years, but some individuals end up living considerably longer lives. For example, in the UK and Ireland a Barn Swallow of over 11 years has been found and in Sweden a ringer recaptured a Common House Martin older than 15 years.

How do they reproduce?

Different species of swallows and martins make very different type of nests. Some prefer to nest in existing cavities like an old woodpecker's nest; other species excavate tunnels in slopes with soft soils; still others build mud nests on cliffs or in our dwellings. They generally form couples that stay together all their lives and always use the same nest, which they repair year after year. In many of the species, male and female share responsibility for building the nest, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The chicks are born naked, with only a few down feathers, and remain with their eyes closed for about ten days.

What do swallows eat?

The diet of most swallow and martin species is based on insects that they capture in flight. There are, however, some swallow and martin species on other continents that occasionally feed on fruits and seeds.

How do swallows drink?

Swallows and martins drink as they fly, making low flights over the surface of water in lakes, rivers or even pools.

How do they communicate?

Swallows and martins have different songs, or calls, that they use to communicate among themselves on different occasions. As they are social birds they emit short calls to affirm their presence to the rest of the group, while hunting or during migrations. They also emit an alert call whenever a predator appears. Males are chosen by females for both the beauty of their plumage and their ability to sing. And the young ones can be annoying as they repeatedly make a call begging their parents for food.

How fast can a swallow fly?

Swallows and martins spend most of their time in flight and are known for their skill. They generally fly between 51 and 64 km/h but their top speed can reach 72 km/h.

Do all the swallows migrate?

No! Some swallows and martins, such as the Eurasian Crag Martin  which occurs in Portugal, remain in the same territory all year round or make short-distance movements to lower altitude areas.

Why do swallows migrate?

Migratory swallows and martins migrate to ensure food availability. In the colder and rainy months they look for warmer places where the insects on which they feed are available.

What distances do swallows travel during the migration?

It varies greatly between species and even between populations of the same species, but some swallows and martins travel more than 20,000 kilometres during their annual migrations.

Are they threatened birds?

No! Most swallows and martins are still relatively common. However, there is a marked decrease in the number of swallows and martins, as with other insectivorous birds, which is very worrying! It should also be noted that certain species, such as the White-eyed River Martin, the Montane Blue Swallow and the Golden Swallow, are threatened.

Why are they important?

Swallows and martins play a fundamental role in controlling invertebrates such as those that exist near our homes or near crop fields. Without swallows, martins and other insectivorous animals these invertebrates could cause enormous damage by destroying crops. They also prevent the transmission of diseases that have mosquitoes as their main vectors, such as dengue fever or malaria.

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