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Chimney Swift
Chimney Swift
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Apodiformes
Family: Apodidae
Hartert, 1897
Many; see text.

The swifts are birds superficially similar to swallows but are actually not closely related to those passerine species at all; swifts are in the separate order Apodiformes, which they formerly shared with the hummingbirds.

The resemblances between the swifts and swallows are due to convergent evolution reflecting similar life styles based on catching insects in flight.

The family scientific name comes from the Greek απους, apous, meaning "without feet", since swifts have very short legs and never settle voluntarily on the ground, perching instead on vertical surfaces. The tradition of depicting swifts without feet continued into the Middle Ages, as seen in the heraldic martlet.

Swifts are the most aerial of birds and some, like the Common Swift, even sleep and mate on the wing. Larger species, such as white-throated needletail, are amongst the fastest flyers in the animal kingdom. One group, the Swiftlets or Cave Swiftlets have developed a form of echolocation for navigating through dark cave systems where they roost. One species, Aerodramus papuensis has recently been discovered to use this navigation at night outside its cave roost also.

Like swallows and martins, the swifts of temperate regions are strongly migratory and winter in the tropics.

Many swifts have a characteristic shape, with a short forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang. The flight of some species is characterised by a distinctive "flicking" action quite different from swallows.

The nest of many species is glued to a vertical surface with saliva, and the genus Aerodramus use only that substance, which is the basis for bird's nest soup.

Systematics and evolution

The treeswifts are closely related to the true swifts, but form a separate family, the Hemiprocnidae.

In the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, the old order Apodiformes is split. Swifts remain in that order, but hummingbirds are put into a new order, Trochiliformes. This might be correct, but further research on the interrelationships and evolutionary history of the Apodiformes is necessary.

The taxonomy of this group is in general complicated, with genus and species boundaries widely disputed, especially amongst the swiftlets. Analysis of behavior and vocalizations is marred by common parallel evolution, while analyses of different morphological traits and of various DNA sequences have yielded equivocal and partly contradictory results (Thomassen et al., 2005).

The Apodiformes diversified during the Eocene, at the end of which the extant families were present; fossil genera are known from all over temperate Europe, between today's Denmark and France, such as the primitive Scaniacypselus (Early - Middle Eocene) and the more modern Procypseloides (Late Eocene/Early Oligocene - Early Miocene). A prehistoric genus sometimes assigned to the swifts, Primapus (Early Eocene of England), might also be a more distant ancestor.

Species list: Family Apodidae

Tribe Cypseloidini

  • Genus Cypseloides
    • Chestnut-collared Swift, Cypseloides rutilus
      Tepui Swift, Cypseloides phelpsi
      Black Swift, Cypseloides niger
      White-chested Swift, Cypseloides lemosi
      Rothschild's Swift, Cypseloides rothschildi
      Sooty Swift, Cypseloides fumigatus
      Spot-fronted Swift, Cypseloides cherriei
      White-chinned Swift, Cypseloides cryptus
      White-fronted Swift, Cypseloides storeri
      Great Dusky Swift, Cypseloides senex
  • Genus Streptoprocne
    • White-collared Swift, Streptoprocne zonaris
      Biscutate Swift, Streptoprocne biscutata
      White-naped Swift, Streptoprocne semicollaris

Tribe Collocaliini - swiftlets

  • Genus Collocalia
    • Glossy Swiftlet, Collocalia esculenta
      • Grey-rumped Swiftlet, Collocalia (esculenta) marginata
    • Cave Swiftlet, Collocalia linchi
      Pygmy Swiftlet, Collocalia troglodytes
  • Genus Aerodramus
    • Seychelles Swiftlet, Aerodramus elaphrus
      Mascarene Swiftlet, Aerodramus francicus
      Indian Swiftlet, Aerodramus unicolor
      Philippine Swiftlet, Aerodramus mearnsi
      Moluccan Swiftlet, Aerodramus infuscatus
      Mountain Swiftlet, Aerodramus hirundinaceus
      White-rumped Swiftlet, Aerodramus spodiopygius
      Australian Swiftlet, Aerodramus terraereginae
      Himalayan Swiftlet, Aerodramus brevirostris
      Indochinese Swiftlet, Aerodramus rogersi
      Volcano Swiftlet, Aerodramus vulcanorum
      Whitehead's Swiftlet, Aerodramus whiteheadi
      Bare-legged Swiftlet, Aerodramus nuditarsus
      Mayr's Swiftlet, Aerodramus orientalis
      Palawan Swiftlet, Aerodramus palawanensis
      Mossy-nest Swiftlet, Aerodramus salangana
      Uniform Swiftlet, Aerodramus vanikorensis
      Palau Swiftlet, Aerodramus pelewensis
      Guam Swiftlet, Aerodramus bartschi
      Caroline Islands Swiftlet, Aerodramus inquietus
      Mangaia Swiftlet, Aerodramus manuoi (prehistoric)
      Atiu Swiftlet, Aerodramus sawtelli
      Polynesian Swiftlet, Aerodramus leucophaeus
      Marquesan Swiftlet, Aerodramus ocistus
      Black-nest Swiftlet, Aerodramus maximus
      Edible-nest Swiftlet, Aerodramus fuciphagus
      German's Swiftlet, Aerodramus germani
      Papuan Swiftlet, Aerodramus papuensis (probably a distinct genus)
  • Genus Hydrochous
    • Waterfall Swift, Hydrochous gigas
  • Genus Schoutedenapus
    • Scarce Swift, Schoutedenapus myoptilus
      Schouteden's Swift, Schoutedenapus schoutedeni

Tribe Chaeturini - needletails

  • Genus Mearnsia
    • Philippine Spinetail, Mearnsia picina
      Papuan Spinetail, Mearnsia novaeguineae
  • Genus Zoonavena
    • Malagasy Spinetail, Zoonavena grandidieri
      Sao Tome Spinetail, Zoonavena thomensis
      White-rumped Needletail, Zoonavena sylvatica
  • Genus Telacanthura
    • Mottled Spinetail, Telacanthura ussheri
      Black Spinetail, Telacanthura melanopygia
  • Genus Rhaphidura
    • Silver-rumped Needletail, Rhaphidura leucopygialis
      Sabine's Spinetail, Rhaphidura sabini
  • Genus Neafrapus
    • Cassin's Spinetail, Neafrapus cassini
      Bat-like Spinetail, Neafrapus boehmi
  • Genus Hirundapus
    • White-throated Needletail, Hirundapus caudacutus
      Silver-backed Needletail, Hirundapus cochinchinensis
      Brown-backed Needletail, Hirundapus giganteus
      Purple Needletail, Hirundapus celebensis
  • Genus Chaetura
    • Band-rumped Swift, Chaetura spinicauda
      Lesser Antillean Swift, Chaetura martinica
      Gray-rumped Swift, Chaetura cinereiventris
      Pale-rumped Swift, Chaetura egregia
      Chimney Swift, Chaetura pelagica
      Vaux's Swift, Chaetura vauxi
      Chapman's Swift, Chaetura chapmani
      Short-tailed Swift, Chaetura brachyura
      Ashy-tailed Swift, Chaetura andrei

Tribe Apodini - typical swifts

  • Genus Aeronautes
    • White-throated Swift, Aeronautes saxatalis
      White-tipped Swift, Aeronautes montivagus
      Andean Swift, Aeronautes andecolus
  • Genus Tachornis
    • Tachornis uranoceles (fossil; Late Pleistocene of Puerto Rico)
    • Antillean Palm Swift, Tachornis phoenicobia
      Pygmy Swift, Tachornis furcata
      Fork-tailed Palm Swift, Tachornis squamata
  • Genus Panyptila
    • Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Panyptila cayennensis
      Great Swallow-tailed Swift, Panyptila sanctihieronymi
  • Genus Cypsiurus
    • Asian Palm Swift, Cypsiurus balasiensis
      African Palm Swift, Cypsiurus parvus
  • Genus Apus
    • Apus gaillardi (fossil)
    • Apus wetmorei (fossil)
    • Alpine Swift, Apus melba
      Mottled Swift, Apus aequatorialis
      Alexander's Swift, Apus alexandri
      Common Swift, Apus apus
      Plain Swift, Apus unicolor
      Nyanza Swift, Apus niansae
      Pallid Swift, Apus pallidus
      African Swift, Apus barbatus
      Forbes-Watson's Swift, Apus berliozi
      Bradfield's Swift, Apus bradfieldi
      Madagascar Swift, Apus balstoni
      Pacific Swift, Apus pacificus
      Dark-rumped Swift, Apus acuticauda
      Little Swift, Apus affinis
      House Swift, Apus nipalensis
      Horus Swift, Apus horus
      White-rumped Swift, Apus caffer
      Bates' Swift Apus batesi


  • Chantler, Phil & Driessens, Gerald (2000): Swifts : a guide to the swifts and treeswifts of the world. Pica Press, Mountfield, East Sussex. ISBN 1-873403-83-6
  • Thomassen, Henri A.; Tex, Robert-Jan; Bakker, Merijn A.G. & Povel, G. David E. (2005): Phylogenetic relationships amongst swifts and swiftlets: A multi locus approach. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37(1): 264-277. DOI:10.1016/j.ympev.2005.05.010 (HTML abstract)

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