The Alpine Swift can be found throughout southern Europe, from Portugal to Bulgaria, and throughout all of Africa. In Europe, its main breeding area extends northward from Greece, ending just short of Germany. It is also vagrant to the British Isles and some parts of central and northern Europe. (Peterson et al. 1993, Harrison and Greensmith 1993)
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
With a length of 21 centimeters and a wingspan of 53 centimeters, Tachymarptis melba is the largest known swift. It is thick-set with a short, forked tail. The plumage on its back is umber-brown, while its throat and belly are white. A dark pectoral band is also visible. (Peterson et al. 1993, Bologna 1978)
Habitat and Ecology
The Alpine Swift usually resides in high, rocky, mountainous areas, but the rocky regions of sea cliffs are also an acceptable habitat for the swift. It can also be found living among the old buildings of a town or city. (Bologna 1978, Peterson et al. 1993)
Terrestrial Biomes: mountains
The Alpine Swift feeds exclusively on insects that it catches while in flight. While feeding, it courses back and forth with its huge mouth open, collecting the insects in its path. It will feed indiscriminately on any flying insects that it can get into its mouth. (Bologna 1978, Encyclopedia Britannica 1999)
Life History and Behavior
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
The Alpine Swift rears its young in a cup-shaped nest. This nest is usually built of feathers, fibers, sticks, plant down, and moss. The swift's saliva is used as the glue that holds the nest together. The nest is usually glued to the vertical surfaces of rock cracks and the eaves of houses, with the saliva once again serving as the glue. The swift will lay a single clutch of one to four eggs, though three is the usual number. Both parents incubate the eggs for eighteen to thirty-three days. The nestlings are hatched naked, and they are reared for another six to ten weeks, not leaving the nest until they have acquired adult plumage. (Bologna 1978, Encyclopedia Britannica 1999, Gilliard 1967)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Tachymarptis melba
There are 2 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Tachymarptis melba
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
Status in Egypt
Migrant breeder, regular passage visitor and winter visitor?
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2008Least Concern
- 2004Least Concern
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: no special status
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
The Alpine Swift will sometimes nest in the eaves of houses. This can create an annoyance for most homeowners, and it could cause some damage to the house as well. These nests can also be viewed by some people as an eyesore to the neighborhood. (Bologna 1978)
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
By feeding exclusively on insects, the Alpine Swift reduces the number of these pests that are irritating or harmful to humans. (Bologna 1978)
The Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) or Apus melba, is a species of swift. The bird is superficially similar to a large Barn Swallow or House Martin. It is, however, completely unrelated to those passerine species, since swifts are in the order Apodiformes. The resemblances between the groups are due to convergent evolution, reflecting similar life styles.
Swifts have very short legs which they use only for clinging to vertical surfaces. The scientific name comes from the Ancient Greek απους, apous, meaning "without feet". They never settle voluntarily on the ground.
Alpine Swifts breed in mountains from southern Europe to the Himalaya. Like Common Swifts, they are strongly migratory, and winter much further south in southern Africa. They wander widely on migration, and are regularly seen in much of southern Europe and Asia. The species seems to have been much more widespread during the last ice age, with a large colony breeding for example at Komarowa Cave near Częstochowa, Poland, around 40,000-20,000 years ago.
Alpine Swifts build their nests in colonies in a suitable cliff hole or cave, laying 2-3 eggs. A swift will return to the same site year after year, rebuilding its nest when necessary. These birds pair for life. Young swifts in the nest can drop their body temperature and become torpid if bad weather prevents their parents from catching insects nearby.
Alpine Swifts spend most of their lives in the air, living on the insects they catch in their beaks. They drink on the wing, but roost on vertical cliffs or walls. A study published in 2013 showed Alpine Swifts can spend over six months flying without having to land. All vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be performed while on air.
Alpine Swifts are readily distinguished from the Common Swifts by their larger size and their white belly and throat. The Alpine Swift is around twice as big as most other swifts in its range. It is 20 to 23 cm (7.9 to 9.1 in) long, with a wingspan of 57 cm (22 in) and weighed around 100 g (3.5 oz). The Alpine swift is largely dark brown in colour, with white patches underneath the beak and on the breast that are separated by a dark brown streak. The juvenile is similar to the adult, but the feathers are pale edged. In comparison, the Common Swift has a wingspan of around 42 cm (17 in). A dark neck band separates the white throat from the white belly. They have a short forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang but may (as in the image) be held stretched straight out. The flight is slower and more powerful than that of their smaller relative.
The call is a drawn-out twittering.
In 2011, Felix Liechti and his colleagues at the Swiss Ornithological Institute attached electronic tags that log movement to six alpine swifts and it was discovered that the birds could stay in the air for more than 200 days straight.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Tachymarptis melba". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Tomek, Teresa & Bocheński, Zygmunt (2005): "fWeichselian and Holocene bird remains from Komarowa Cave, Central Poland". Acta zoologica cracoviensia 48A(1-2): 43-65.
- Felix Liechti et al. "First evidence of a 200-day non-stop flight in a bird"
- BTO Birdfacts - Alpine swift
- Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi by Stevenson & Fanshawe. Elsevier Science (2001), ISBN 978-0856610790
- This Bird Can Stay in Flight for Six Months Straight