Little swift (Apus affinis)

Also known as: House swift
French: Martinet des maisons
GenusApus (1)
SizeLength: 12 cm (2)
Weight25 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The little swift is a very small bird, highly adapted to its aerial lifestyle, with long, narrow wings and a square-shaped tail. As the little swift spends most of the time gliding, rarely needing to flap its wings, this bird has a flat underside and weak breast muscles (2). The genus name Apus derives from the Greek ‘apous’ meaning ‘footless’, and actually refers to the short legs of the swift, which are so short and weak that, combined with its poorly developed breast muscles, the little swift avoids landing on the ground as it can be difficult to get back into the air (2) (3). In contrast to its weak legs, the little swift has strong feet with incredibly sharp claws, used for clinging on to vertical surfaces (2). Male and female little swifts look alike; both have big, black, beady eyes, a small beak, and black plumage with a white rump and throat. Juveniles differ from adults and have a grey head and body with white-edged flight feathers (4). Little swifts are very vocal especially during the breeding season, when the breeding pairs perform high-pitched duets (2).

The little swift is common and widespread throughout Asia and Africa. It also has a fragmented distribution in the Mediterranean (1). The migration of the little swift is not well documented and its migratory behaviour, as well as other behaviours, varies depending on the region within this large range (2).

Found in a wide range of habitats, including forest, savanna, shrubland and grassland (1), the little swift build its nests on vertical surfaces such as cliffs and buildings (2). The prominent features of the little swift’s habitat are an abundant food supply and proximity to a water source (1) (2).

As with all swifts, the little swift forms monogamous breeding pairs (5), with each pair laying one to three eggs, which are incubated for 22 to 24 days (2). The breeding pair is capable of ‘double-clutching’, which means that if the first clutch of eggs is lost they will produce a second to replace it (2). The nest of the little swift is robust and messy-looking outside, but smooth and neat inside. It is hemispherical in shape and built from grass, small twigs, down and feathers, which are glued together with saliva (2). Nests are built in groups of up to 30, and two to three females may lay their eggs in a shared nest (2). The breeding season of this bird depends on the location and the weather; for example, in Senegal and Gambia it breeds from October to July and avoids the rainy season, whereas the little swift breeds all year round in West African rainforest (2).

The swift family are renowned for feeding whilst flying, taking and eating airborne insects such as flying ants, bees, wasps, and beetles on the wing (4). Swifts also drink whilst flying by swooping low and scooping up water into their beaks (2).

Deforestation has led to a decrease of suitable habitats in which the little swift can nest and breed. Man-made structures have also been known to cause death to swifts as there are records of them flying into telephone wires, buildings and aircraft (2). Other threats include chlorine poisoning, caused by drinking water from swimming pools, and falling into fireplaces when nesting in chimneys. There is also evidence that dangerously high levels of pesticides can build up in the little swift after eating contaminated insects (2).

There are currently no conservation measures known to be in place for this species.   

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2009)
  2. Del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Johns, C.A. (1854) Birds’ Nests. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.
  4. Mangrove and Wetland Wildlife at Sungei Buloh Nature Park (November 2009)
  5. Hockey, P., Dean, W.R.J. and Ryan, P.G. (2005) Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.