My inspiration for this post comes directly from the Oakmoss Education blog, where Mary Jo Graham has written an interesting post about tree swallows.
What I would like to do is mention similarities and differences between the swallow family (more technically known as hirundines) in the USA and the swallows and martins in my native Britain, where there are only three such species, compared to America’s eight regular species and two ‘casual’ visitors.
video from BTO explaining how to identify UK hirundines & swifts
Two of these species are found as regular summer visitors in both countries. The bird that Brits call just the ‘swallow’ is known in the USA as the ‘barn swallow’ (Hirundo rustica). The British birds spend their winters in Africa whereas the American birds head down into South America. Interestingly, the North European subspecies are always white-breasted, whereas the American birds are a buff or cinnamon color underneath. I’ve also seen many birds of this species in several African countries where some of them are very bright orange underneath, and I presume these are yet another subspecies — perhaps one that is resident year-round in the so-called ‘Dark Continent’.
Is it worth knowing these differences, here in the States? Well, if you travel within North America it might be, because two of the white-breasted, Eurasian subspecies are casual visitors here. Hirundo rustica rustica and Hirundo rustica gutturalis are both occasionally seen in west and north Alaska, and the latter has also been seen in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Another hirundine that is found on both sides of the Atalantic is the bank swallow (USA) or sand martin (Britain). Again, the scientific name — Riparia riparia — shows that these birds are indeed the same species.
Britain’s third member of this family is the house martin (Delichon urbica), which has been seen on both sides of North America: Western Alaska, where it is a casual visitor in spring, and a record of a single bird at an island off the coast of Newfoundland.
Although not closely related to swallows, swifts cause some confusion to new birders. North America has four regular species, only one of which — the chimney swift — is to be found on the eastern side of the continent. Britain, on the other hand, only has one — the common swift (Apus apus) — which is an ‘accidental’ visitor to islands off both Alaska and Newfoundland. Records of visits also exist for Bermuda and (quote) “probably the north east” of the USA.