Swallows and martins are closely related, making up a group of birds called the hirundines. Swifts are far removed from the hirundines, although they have evolved to look and behave similarly. All the birds feed on insects, so they are often found in similar habitats, although they tend to fly at different heights. They skim the water of ponds and rivers where midges gather and are also commonly seen around farmland.
The long, deeply forked tail of a swallow is one of the first keys to identification. They have a red bib, but if the light is on them, this may not be visible. Swallows are very social and are often spotted in large groups, chattering to each other, especially before migration in autumn. Look for them perched in rows on telephone wires or houses and outbuildings.
We get both house and sand martins, although the house martin is the more common of the two. Both species have a much shorter forked tail than the swallow. The house martin has completely white undersides and a white rump, visible as they fly. The rest of their back is a glossy black.
Sand martins are noticeably brown, with a brown collar breaking up their white belly. They nest in large colonies in sandy banks, so they are less likely to be seen around our urban areas.
Swifts are the high-fliers of this group. Their screaming calls from way up in the sky are sadly becoming less and less common as swifts lose their breeding habitats in the eaves of old buildings. Unlike the other birds, swifts have no easily identifiable light patches, appearing completely black. Their longer wings look like a scythe in the sky. Swifts never perch or land on the ground - the only time they are not in flight is when they nest. The Swift Conservation website can also provide you with advice on who to contact if you find a grounded swift.
If you would like to help swifts locally, you can install a swift box within or under the eaves of your house if it is over two stories high.