‘Swallows’ and ‘martins’ (birds) are considered as one large group — the swallow family.  Scientifically there is no difference, but generally, the square-tailed birds of this group are called ‘martins’ and the fork-tailed birds are called ‘swallows’.  ‘Swallow’ is usually the name for the ‘barn swallow’.  In this entry, we discuss only the ‘swallows’!


a kind of bird – song bird – small, streamlined body in different coloured feathers, depending on the species (kinds), mostly, glossy dark blue or green above and plain white or streaked under parts, round head with a short beak (bill) but strong jaws and large mouth, long, pointed wings, long forked tail, short weak legs, toes with claws for perching (sitting) on thin branches or wire; size: 4-10 inches long, and weight:10-60 grams; feeds on (eats) insects caught in the air (some African species are known to feed on seeds); lives for 4-10 years; about 83 species found all over the world, except Antarctica

barn swallow in flight

Some types of swallows, basing on the habitat, are: barn swallows, tree swallows, cliff swallows, cave swallows, (river) bank swallows, mangrove swallow; African swallows, European swallows, Pacific swallows. And there is a local name for each species and sub-species: for example: Bahaman swallow, golden swallow, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, Chilean swallow, pale-footed swallow, black-caped swallow, rough-winged swallow
A group of swallows is called a ‘gulp’.
Special Features:

The ‘barn swallow’ is the national bird of Estonia and Austria, countries in Europe.

Most species of wallow are migratory.

Swallows, like most other insect eaters, catch and eat their prey (= insects they kill and eat) while they fly.  And though they seem to be ‘swallowing’ any insect they catch, some species of these birds are very selective in their choice of insect – some prey on a particular kind of insect and often go for the large-sized ones!

cliff swallow nest

The pointed wings and the forked tail of a swallow, the special trade-marks of most swallows, help them to fly fast and change direction easily in order to catch the zig-zagging insects!

Another interesting feature of the swallow birds is the way they build their nests!  Some ‘bank swallow’ species live in burrows in the sand banks of rivers and lakes, some others, like the tree swallows nest in the tree holes or the abandoned ‘wood-pecker’ birds’ holes, and the barn, cave and cliff swallows build cup-shaped nests with mud pellets made paste-like with their saliva and lined with soft material.

barn swallow nest

The most surprising thing is that the same pair of swallows uses its cup-shaped mud nest year after year for several years, repairing it from time to time, and the same nest may be used by other pairs, after the original pair dies, for ten or more years – a study revealed that a nest had been used by different pairs for 48 years!!

swallow tattoos on a person’s back

The ‘barn swallow’ is the most widespread species of swallow in the world, and the European swallow is associated with the spring season so much so that the proverb “One swallow does not make a summer!” is used widely to say that one simple fact cannot prove a whole thing!

Many people love to have the swallow tattoos on their bodies; in olden days, sailors had them tattooed because they believed that they would have safe and fast voyage!

Swallows are mentioned in several religious scriptures, such as the Bible, the Koran, etc., and swallows are often found in some popular stories of modern literature, such as the ‘Happy Prince and the other tales’ by Oscar Wilde. And there are several stories and fables of ancient and modern literature and the more recent cartoons and animated movies with the swallows in the lead character!!

For an article on purple martin, please click here.
Note: ‘Martin’, always with a capital ‘M’, is often found in the names of people, e.g. Dean Martin, Elsie Martin, etc., For an article that explains the origin and more about this word, please click here.

Return to “marten ~ martin” in Words Often Confused.     Return to “swallow ~ swallow” in Words Often confused.

About the Author:BC Kumar

BC Kumar, an English Language Teacher, taught in numerous countries including Ethiopia, Oman and India, shares his knowledge and passion for the English Language. Disclaimer: This is a free educational website and all content has been compiled by the author. All copyrights to images and videos belong to their respective owners.

Comments are closed.