African Swifts or African Black Swifts

African Black Swift (Apus barbatus). From a great spot at the top of a cliff at Hlokozi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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The African Swift or African Black Swift, Apus barbatus, is a small bird in the swift family.


Distribution / Range

It breeds in Africa discontinuously from Liberia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Uganda and Kenya south to South Africa, and on Madagascar. The breeding habitat is damp mountains, typically between 1,600 - 2,400 m, but less often at lower altitudes.

This species feeds readily over lowland, and can form very large flocks, often with other gregarious swifts.

The nominate South African subspecies is migratory, wintering further north. Other subspecies are resident. Of the other seven accepted forms, the most widespread is the small dark A. b. roehli of east Africa. Two other dark races, A. b. balstoni and A. b. mayottensis, are restricted to Madagascar and the Comoro Islands respectively. It has been suggested that some balstoni migrate to the continental mainland when not breeding, but this has not been proved.


African Swift or African Black Breeding / Nesting

East African birds nest in hollow trees, whereas in South Africa this species uses cliffs, usually inland but also on the coast. African Swift is a colonial breeder, sometimes forming mixed colonies with alpine swifts.

The nest is a shallow grass cup glued to the substrate with saliva, and the typical clutch is one or two eggs.



The African Swift is 16-18 cm long and bulky like a pallid swift; it appears entirely blackish-brown except for a small white or pale grey patch on the chin which is not visible from a distance. It has a short forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang.

This species is very similar to Common Swift but can be distinguished under optimum viewing conditions by the contrast between its black back and paler secondary wing feathers. The heavier build also gives it a distinctive flight action, which consisted of a steady level flight interspersed with short glides.


Calls / Vocalizations

The call is a loud double rasped hissing scream zzzzzzzZZZTT, dissimilar to that of its confusion species.


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