Fairy martin (Hirundo ariel)

Synonyms: Collocalia ariel, Petrochelidon ariel
GenusHirundo (1)
SizeLength: 11 cm (2) (3)
Weight9 - 14 g (2) (3)
Top facts

The fairy martin is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The fairy martin (Hirundo ariel) is a small Australian bird with a reddish-brown head, dark wings and dull white underparts (2) (3) (4). The back is a deep glossy blue with a few white streaks, while the rump is whitish and the tail is brownish-black. The fairy martin has a greyish chin, throat and upper breast, with fine black streaking, and there is a brownish tinge to the otherwise white flanks (2) (3). Its face is greyish-brown (2) (3), with a black area between the beak and eyes (3).

The male and female fairy martin are similar in appearance, and both have a slightly forked tail (2) (3) which can appear quite square in flight (4). The eyes of this species are dark brown, while its beak is black and its legs and feet are blackish-brown (3). Juvenile fairy martins are duller and browner than the adults, with a grey crown and buffy edges to their feathers (2) (3).

Although very similar in appearance to its relative the streak-throated swallow (Hirundo fluvicola), the fairy martin can be distinguished by its white rather than brownish rump, its slightly duller crown and its less heavily streaked face and throat (2) (3). Its reddish-brown rather than dark bluish head helps separate the fairy martin from the tree martin (Hirundo nigricans) (2) (3) (4).

The song of the fairy martin is described as a high-pitched twittering, and it also uses a short ‘chrrr’ or ‘prrrt-prrrt’ call to keep in contact with other individuals (2) (3).

The fairy martin occurs across most of Australia, except for parts of the southwest (2) (3) (5). This species is occasionally recorded as a vagrant in Tasmania, but no longer breeds there. It also sometimes occurs in New Zealand and may potentially have bred there in recent decades (2) (3).

At the end of the breeding season, some fairy martins migrate northwards to spend the winter in northern Australia, New Guinea and on islands in the Torres Strait (2) (3) (4).

The fairy martin is found in open habitats such as open woodland and grassland, typically inhabiting areas close to water (2) (3) (4) (6).

A sociable species, the fairy martin usually feeds in large flocks and nests in colonies (2) (3) (4). It generally forages high in the air, catching flying insects such as mayflies, termites, beetles, flies, wasps, ants and moths (2), which it pursues with great agility (6). This species has also been recorded feeding on moths on a lawn (2) (3).

The breeding season of the fairy martin generally runs from August to January or February (2) (3) (7) (8), and two to three broods may be raised each season (2) (3) (8). Fairy martins build their nests close together, forming colonies which generally consist of around 8 to 30 pairs, but which occasionally may number up to several hundred (2) (3) (8).

The fairy martin is the only Australian bird to construct an enclosed, bottle-shaped mud nest, and the nests in a colony are often clustered and fused together (9). Both sexes help build the nest, constructing it from mud pellets and lining it with grass and feathers (2) (3) (7) (8) (9). The fairy martin’s nest has a tunnel-like entrance (2) (3) and is commonly attached to an artificial site such as a culvert, bridge, mine shaft or under house eaves, or to natural sites like cliffs, caves, hollow trees or riverbanks (2) (3) (6) (9). The nest is commonly reused in the same season (8), and individual birds often return to the same breeding site in successive years (2) (3) (8) (9).

The clutch size of the fairy martin ranges from 2 to 5 eggs, which are incubated for 11 to 18 days (2) (7) (8). The eggs are white and often have reddish-brown specks (3). Both adults help with incubation, and both also feed the chicks, which leave the nest at 14 to 32 days old (2) (7) (8). Prolonged periods of cold, wet weather can often result in the adults abandoning their nest (2) (8), and the nests are also vulnerable to predators such as kingfishers, as well as nest competitors such as the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) (2) (3).

The fairy martin is a common and widespread species, and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (2) (5). Its population is believed to be increasing due to a greater availability of artificial nest sites and an increase in grassland habitats over the last century (2).

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for the fairy martin.

Find out more about the fairy martin and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2013)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Turner, A. and Rose, C. (1989) A Handbook to the Swallows and Martins of the World. A&C Black, London.
  4. Birds in Backyards - Fairy martin (March, 2013)
  5. BirdLife International - Fairy martin (March, 2013)
  6. Tzaros, C. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  7. Tarburton, M.K. (1991) Breeding biology of fairy martins at Murwillumbah. Emu, 91: 93-99.
  8. Magrath, M.J.L. (1999) Breeding ecology of the fairy martin. Australian Journal of Zoology, 47: 463-477.
  9. Olsen, P. and Joseph, L. (2011) Stray Feathers: Reflections on the Structure, Behaviour and Evolution of Birds. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.