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Lesser Striped Swallow

Swallows, Martins and Saw-wings in East Africa

Order: Passeriformes
is the largest order of birds in the Class Aves. It contains over 140 families with 6.500 identified bird species world wide. They are also called perching birds. 3 toes point forward, 1 backwards called hallux and is long. This is called anisodactyl arrangement. This toe constellation makes it easier to hold on to a branch, twig, wire or blade of grass.

A further adaptation for perching is a tendon running on the rear side of the leg to the underside of the toes is attached to the muscle behind the Tibiotarsus (the large bone between femur and tarsometatarsus). This makes the feet curl automatically once the leg is bent and becomes stiff when landing on a branch. So they can sleep without falling down and using valuable energy. Feet

Passerines are insectivorous or omnivorous meaning feeding on insects, small vertebrates, fruits, seeds and nectar. Omnivorous birds change to more carnivorous during breeding season. Plant material has less protein which is required for the chicks to grow fast and strong.

The name Passeriformes derives from Greek – Passer = Sparrow, Formis = shape. They originated in the Southern Hemisphere around 60 Mio years ago.
Most Passerines have 12 tail feathers.

The eggs are coloured in most species. The number of eggs vary from species to species. The chicks are altricial meaning they hedge blind, without feathers and are helpless. They have reflexes to sense when a parent is landing and open their beak wide to get fed. The beak is fringed with yellow skin to signal the feeding parent where to place food.

Superfamily: Sylvioidea contains around 1.300 bird species. Swallows, Old World Warblers, Larks and Bulbuls are some of them.

Family Hirundinidae – Swallows

This family has around 90 species world wide in 19 genera with the most species found in Africa. It is divided into 2 subfamilies.

It is thought they evolved in Africa as hole-nesters. They are found on all continents even occasionally in the Antarctica and on some oceanic islands.
They are skilled and fast hunters in the air but in the contrary to Swifts they rest on branches or cables.T

Their diet consists of insects and they are important to control the number of mosquitoes. Their slim aerodynamic body, the long wings and the often forked tail enables them to manoeuvre fast to catch the insects. They are endurand fliers and some migrate huge distances to survive the Northern winter. One good sample is the Barn Swallow.

An adaptation to spot prey quickly and accurately is that they have 2 foveae in each eye which gives them a sharp front and lateral vision. The morphology of their eyes is a bit similar to those of raptors.

Swallows can walk but with their short legs and the partially joint front toes it is more a waddling. The leg muscles of Martins are stronger.

Since they mostly catch their prey in the air they need open space. So you will find them near or over water, around houses, forest edges, forest clearings, savanna and other open areas. They prefer larger insects but avoid stinging insects. In Africa they have been observed to take the fruits of Acacia trees.

4 to 5 mostly white eggs are laid in a nest. This can be a nest made of mud under a ceiling or rock and sometimes many nests are close to each other. The pair raises the young and during this time they won’t flock while when not breeding they can form large flocks and even roost close to each other to reduce predation by birds of prey. The young will stay for quite a while with their parents while they learn how to hunt.

Their songs aren’t melodious it is more of a twitter and often pairs are chatting.
Subfamily Hirundininae which contains Swallows, Martins and Saw-wings
Swallows are mainly blue iridescent on top of the body and wings and the angle of the light reveals their beautiful colour. White, reddish-brown, black spots or a red cap are other marks to help identifying the species.

Martins are brownish while Sawwings can be black or brown.

Subfamily Pseudochelidoninae – River Martins which aren’t found in East Africa but in West Africa.

To give you as actual information as possible we use Avibase, the books “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara”, “Birds of East Africa”, “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. Then we put the most characteristic information to the photo.

You can also follow us on Facebook “Bird photography Safaris Kenya” and see the numerous species as well as the beautiful photos from Lorenzo Barelli.
Click on the photo for larger view. The names of the photographers are on the photo and in the text. Without the generosity of several amazing bird photographers it had not been possible to create the pages with so many illustrated bird species in East Africa. Those photos without name are from Elvira Wolfer.

Here you find samples of our birding safaris. On most safaris and birding tours you will come across swallows. To search for special species you might have to travel further.

Sand Martin or Bank Swallow (Riparia r. riparia) are migratory birds from the North and spend the North winter often in large flocks from September to early May in open areas South of the Sahara. They dig their tunnel nest in sandy river and lake banks. Photos by Jacques Pitteloud and Lorenzo Barelli

African Plain Martin or Brown-throated Sandmartin (Riparia paludicola ducis) occurs from E DRC (Kivu), Kenya to C Tanzania. They build 30 to 60 cm long tunnels into sand banks for nesting. Often many nests close to each other. They are found near water often in large numbers. The nominate form is found in EA in S Tanzania.

Banded Martin (Neophedina cincta suahlica) is wide spread over grassland from sea level to 2.500 m. The species is the only in this genus and endemic to Africa. The subspecies erlangeri is found in NE Uganda, N and E Kenya and Upper Nile. Photo Lorenzo Barelli

Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula rufigula) is wide spread near rocks and buildings even in big cities. They are mostly found in highlands. The nest is constructed with mud pellets on rocks or under ceilings of buildings or under bridges. Pairs or small flocks.

White-headed Saw-wing (Psalidoprocne a. albiceps). The nominate form is found in EA in Western Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. In pairs or small flocks mostly near water or forest clearings. Masai Mara

Black Saw-wing (Psalidoprocne pristoptera (holomelas) massaica) is a highland species up to 3.500 m. They hunt in forest clearings in Kenya and Tanzania. The smaller subspecies P. holomelas is a coastal bird. P. p. ruwenzori is found from W Uganda to NW Tanzania – it has a shorter tail. Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Barn Swallow (Hirundo r. rustica) is long distance migrant from the North to South of the Sahara from August to April up to 3.000 m. They are usually found in huge flocks perching or hunting over open areas also wheat fields. Few birds stay all year round.

Angola Swallow (Hirundo angolensis) is mainly distributed West of the Great Rift Valley and locally in E Tanzania. Photo Per Holmen

Ethiopian Swallow (Hirundo aethiopica amadoni) is the coastal subspecies from E Ethiopia, Somalia, coastal Kenya and coastal Tanzania. H. a. Photo Lorenzo Barelli

Wiretailed Swallow (Hirundo s. smithii) is a widespread resident and intra African migrant S of the Sahara in open regions. They are found near water and the striking white belly gives them away. I (Elvira) had the opportunity to watch them raising their young near Nairobi. Nests are built with mud under roofs or bridges.

White-throated Swallow (Hirundo albigularis) has only a few sightings in Tanzania. It is common in Angola, DRC and Southern African countries. Photo Lorenzo Barelli, South Africa

Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea) breeds in SW Tanzania in high grassland and migrates to Uganda and W Kenya from May to September. Photo Per Holmen, Minziro Forest

Pearl-breasted Swallow (Hirundo dimidiata marwitzi) is in EA restricted to SW Tanzania where it isn’t very common.

White-throated Blue Swallow (Hirundo nigrita) is in EA only known from Semliki River in W Uganda.

Lesser striped Swallow (Cecropis abyssinica unitatis) occurs from E to S Africa from sea level to 2.200 m. They migrate locally depending on weather and are even found in dry areas. Amboseli National Park. Video

African Red-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica emini) is the widespread subspecies in East Africa South to Malawi. They are found in different habitats. Other subspecies are rare in EA.

Rufouschested or Red-breasted Swallow (Cecropis semirufa gordoni) is found in SW Kenya, NW Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda from 700 -1.700 m. It is uncommon in grassland and savanna as resident or IA migrant.

Mosque Swallow (Cecropis senegalensis saturatior) is a large swallow widespread in Eastern and Central Africa except very dry areas. C. s. monteiri has white spots on its tail and occurs in Tanzania Z and E Kenya. Photo Per Holmen

Greyrumped Swallow (Pseudhirundo g. griseopyga) lives over open grassland from 900 – 2.200 m in W Kenya, NW and S Tanzania and Uganda. They breed in rodent burrows and are the only species in this genus.