Monday 17 November 2014

Swallows, swifts and house martins in Tuscany

In Tuscany, one of the most pleasing events of Spring is the return of the birds we call swallows, swifts and house martins. In Tuscany, we call them rondini, balestrucci and rondoni. But what is the difference between them? How can they be distinguished, especially while they are in flight?

house martin nest in Tuscany
House martin nest with two chicks

They are different species, despite the fact that when they are in flight it's not that easy to distinguish between them purely on the basis of appearance, due to the speed at which they fly. The swallow and the house martin belong to the Order Passeriformes (related to sparrows and a huge number of other perching bird species) while the swift belongs to the Order Apodiformes (related to humming birds). The similarity in appearance between these species of quite diverse Orders is remarkable example of convergent evolution. They are all adapted to extremely rapid flight and consumption of insects on the wing. Swallows and swifts are usually seen high in the sky although both swifts and house martins are the birds you see flying with great rapidity around the eaves of houses and through arches.

The swallow (rondine)

swallow rondine
Swallow in flight

Swallow (or barn swallow) Hirundo rustica (in Italian rondine pl. rondini - emphasis on the antepenultimate syllable) – very defined forked tail and red on the head. European swallows spend the winter in Africa south of the Sahara, in Arabia and in India. Prior to migration, as autumn approaches, large numbers of swallows characteristically perch close together on telephone wires and then within a day or two are all gone. Migrating swallows cover 200 miles a day, flying mainly during daylight and at low altitude, at speeds of 17-22 miles per hour. The maximum flight speed is 35 mph.

The common swift (rondone)

Swift rondone
Swift in flight

Swift Apus apus (in Italian rondone, pl. rondoni, emphasis on the penultimate syllable - both the bird and the name often confused with rondini, swallows, above) – dark brown all over although against the sky they look black, the wings being long and scythe-like. Except when nesting inside old buildings, swifts spend their lives in the air, living on the insects caught in flight. They drink, feed, and often mate and sleep on the wing. No other bird spends as much of its life in flight, and consequently they have very short legs, used mostly for clinging to vertical surfaces. Swifts have a huge northern hemisphere breeding range and migrate to Africa during the winter. They have been tracked migrating from Sweden to the Congo. When they return to Tuscany, they often come back to the same nest year after year. These are the birds you see, in dark silhouette, high in the Tuscan sky during summer, and flying at tremendous speed around buildings and into crevices, making their characteristic piercing call.

The house martin (balestruccio)

House martin balestruccio
House martin in flight

House martin Delichon urbicum (in Italian balestruccio pl. balestrucci) – a blue head and upper parts, white rump and prominent, pure white underparts, and is the smallest of the three species. House martins build their mud nests at the junction of a vertical surface and an overhang. These mud nests are easy to find in groups inside archways and under eaves in any village in Tuscany. Like the swifts, the house martin migrates across the Sahara desert to the insect rich areas of central Africa during the European winter.

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Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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