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House Swift
Apus affinis

Little Swift, Layang Layang Rumah (Malay)

Having adapted well to humans, noisy House Swifts are commonly seen and heard.

House Swifts feed on flying insects: mainly flying ants and termites (about 60%); bees and wasps (20%) and beetles. They also go for other titbits that they can snatch on the wing (spiders).

House Swifts trawl the air for flying prey. They have a thick fringe of eyelash-like feathers to protect the eyes in case of mid-air collisions with insects, and have transparent eye membranes which keep their vision clear as they blink, like windshield wipers.

Compared to Swallows, House Swifts rarely target a particular prey and simply hawk for insects. They forage at higher altitudes than Swallows: about 200m above the forest canopy, or 100m above open ground.

House swifts are found mostly in open habitats suited for this foraging method. Gregarious birds, they roost and forage in flocks and can be very noisy.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Small (15cm), all black with prominent white rump; throat white; wings long, slender, scimitar- shaped; tail square not deeply forked, appears rounded when fanned. Genders look alike.

Juvenile: head and body narrowly grey-fringed; flight feathers finely edged in white.
house swift on a nest
Photo from
Morten Strange
Call: Described as loud, staccato twittering or shrill screaming especially at roosts before settling down and at dawn before dispersing, and during nesting.

In flight: Rapid shallow flapping interspersed with gliding; wings held away from the body. Frequently soars. White rump shows clearly.

Status in Singapore: Very common resident throughout the island, including North and South offshore islands.

World distribution: South Europe through Africa to the Philippines. Swifts are not found in Australia, New Zealand and southernmost South America.

Similar birds: Swallows: Fly with wings held close to the body, many with regular wing beats. Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) has long tail streamers. Fork-tailed Swift (Aplonis pacificus) a migrant, is larger, all black, tail longer and deeply forked.

Classification: Family Apodidae. Worldwide 99 species, Singapore 9.
Swifts spend most of their lives on the wing, spending all day flying and roosting only at night. They even drink on the fly, taking sips as they zip over the water. The European Swift even mates and sleeps in flight, touching down only to lay eggs.
Swifts fly higher when it's
fine and sunny
(high-pressure weather)
and lower when it's cloudy
(low-pressure weather).

Their Malay name Layang Layang which means "kite", is appropriate for these constantly airborne birds. In fact, Swifts can't perch because their feet are small and weak. Some may even have difficulty taking flight again if they land on the ground. They rest on vertical surfaces hanging on with their strong sharp claws. Their hind toe is reversible, giving them a good grip. From these vertical roosts, they simply let go to launch back into flight.

Breeding: House Swifts nests in small colonies, building their nests close to each other on sheer vertical surfaces. In the wild, they make their nests on limestone cliffs, but they have adapted to human constructions and now colonise buildings, jetties and bridges; including those in busy urban areas. They look for nooks and crannies where the nest will be protected from the sun and rain.

Like almost everything else they do, House Swifts gather nesting material on the wing. These include grass, pine needles, feathers, even bits of paper or string. These are glued together with mud and saliva. Their salivary glands enlarge during the breeding season to produce large quantities of this "glue". The nest is saucer-shaped or bulbous, untidy and rough on the outside, but smooth and unlined on the inside. They may reuse the same nest site.
Stick-on Eggs
The Palm Swift (Cypsiurus parvus) of Asia glues its eggs to a tiny, flat nest made on a palm leaf that hangs vertically or even upside down!
Swift as a ... Swift!
Swifts are among the fastest birds in the world, reaching speeds of up to 110 km/hour. Their long wings result in a low ratio of body mass to wing area, making them about 70% more efficient fliers than other birds of the same size.
2-3 white eggs are laid. The chicks cling to the nest and are fed regurgitated insects. Upon taking their first flight, the young fly as swiftly and acrobatically as their parents.

Migration: House Swifts do not appear to migrate. But they do move over long distances from their preferred vertical roosting or nesting sites to foraging sites on open grounds.

Status and threats: House Swifts are not at risk in Singapore as they have adapted well to humans. In fact, they get their name for their close association with human habitation. Swifts play an important role in controlling their insect prey. Although the House Swift is not threatened by collection of their nest, their cousins elsewhere are threatened by unsustainable harvesting of their edible nests, which are considered a delicacy. With proper control and respect for the birds' breeding cycles, it is possible to sustainably harvest their nests. But illegal poaching is threatening their existence.

REFERENCES
  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Morten Strange, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Malaysia and Singapore: including Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Borneo", Periplus, 2000 (p. 172: description, voice, habits, distribution, status, photo).
  • David R Wells, "The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 1 (Non-Passarines)", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 470-472: identification, distribution map, habits, habitat, migration, conservation).
  • Morten Strange, "Birds of Southeast Asia: A photographic guide to the birds of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia", New Holland, 1998 (p. 39: photo, facts).
  • Lim Kim Seng and Dana Gardner, "Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing Ltd., 1997 (p. 41-42: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, diagram, number of species).
  • G W H Davison and Chew Yen Fook, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1995 (p. 57: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, photo).
  • Morten Strange and Allen Jeyarajasingam, "Birds: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing, 1993 (p. 51: description, distribution, habits, habitat, photo).
  • Clive Briffett, "A Guide to the Common Birds of Singapore", BP Science Centre,1992 (p. 77: habit, habitat).
  • Christopher Hails, "Birds of Singapore" illustrated by Frank Jarvis, Times Editions, 1987 reprinted 1995 (p. 101: habits, description, status in Singapore, and lovely drawings of the birds).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Vanishing Birds of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1992 (p. 10: status in Singapore).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Pocket Checklist of the Birds of the Republic of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1999 (Abundance, status, Chinese and Malay names).
  • M W F Tweedie, "Common Birds of the Malay Peninsula", Longman,1970 (p. 26: description, distribution, habits, habitat, drawing).
  • G C Madoc, "An Introduction to Malayan Birds", Malayan Nature Society, 1947 (p. 89-90: description, habits, habitat).
  • Sir John A S Bucknill and E N Chasen, "Birds of Singapore and South-East Asia", Tynron Press, 1927, edition 1990 (p. 136-137: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, field notes on habits, drawings).
  • Prof. Dr. Yong Hoi Sen (ed.), "The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Animals"; Swifts and Swiftlets by Leh Moi Ung, Editions Didier Millet, 1998 (p. 48-49: habits, habitat, about commercial bird's nest trade)
  • Dr. Harold G Cogger (et. al), "Encyclopedia of Animals"; Swifts and Hummingbirds by Charles T. Collins, Weldon Owen, 1993 (p. 354-356).
  • John Palmer (ed.), "Exploring the Secrets of Nature", Reader's Digest, 1994 (p. 185: about their adaptations to swift flight).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001