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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Family: Apodidae (swifts, spinetails)

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Apodiformes

There are 99 species of which 13 occur in southern Africa. 

Species indigenous to southern Africa

Apus affinis (Little swift) 

The Little swift occurs almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and is often found near built up areas or cliffs, as it uses them as nest sites. It eats exclusively arthropods, such as termite alates, dragonflies, grasshoppers, Spiders and mantids, often hunting them at high altitudes. It is a colonial nester, with colonies of up to 30 nests placed close together. Both sexes build the nest, which is a untidy closed bowl, made of grass and feathers glued together with saliva. It lays 1-3 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes, for 20-26 days. The chicks stay in the nest for 36-40 days, after which they become fully independent.

Apus apus (Common swift, European swift)

The Common swift breeds from China through Asia to Europe and and North Africa, with non-breeding grounds encompassing the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a palearctic non-breeding migrant, usually arriving in southern Africa in October-November, leaving roughly from January-March. It exclusively eats arthropods, foraging at much higher altitudes than local-breeding swifts, often reaching heights of 1500-3000 m above ground, usually flying at 36-90 km/hr, but it has been known to reach 216 km/hr in certain conditions! Interestingly, it is permanently airborne in non-breeding grounds, roosting on the wing.

Apus barbatus (African black swift, Black swift) 

The African black swift occurs in large areas of sub-Saharan Africa, with the bulk of its population in eastern as well as southern Africa. It feeds primarily on flying insects, often hunting in mixed species flocks, especially during termite alate emergences. It can cover around 1000 km's in one day's hunting, after which it usually roosts in rock crevices or tree cavities. Its breeding habits are little known, however it is thought to be a monogamous, colonial nester, building a nest made of feathers and grass, glued together with its saliva. It is usually placed in rock crevices or caves, often in cliff faces.

Apus bradfieldi (Bradfield's swift)

Near endemic to southern Africa, occurring from south-western Angola to Namibia and the Northern Cape. It generally prefers arid habitats, such as desert and open savanna, often rocky, mountainous areas. It forages in flocks, almost exclusively eating termite alates, bees and other flying insects. Its breeding habits are little known, however it is thought to be a monogamous colonial nester. The nest is a makeshift half cup, made of plant material and feathers glued together with saliva. They are usually grouped in colonies, often in rock crevices, buildings, mine workings and dead fronds of alien palm trees.

Apus caffer (White-rumped swift)

The White-rumped swift is widespread and common, occurring across sub-Saharan Africa. It often forages in mixed species flocks, usually over savanna, forest, grassland or shrubland, eating mainly termite alates. It usually steals the nests of other swifts and swallows, aggressively chasing the breeding pair away, before evicting any chicks or eggs present in the nest. The female actually lays multiple clutches of 1-5 eggs in one breeding season, waiting only a week after the chicks have fledged before laying another clutch. This process, known as multi-brooding, is part of the reason that this species is so common, as it means that one female can produce dozens of chicks annually.

Apus horus (Horus swift)

The bulk of the Horus swift's population is in southern Africa, mainly in South Africa and Zimbabwe but strangely absent from Botswana. It usually forages in flocks over open areas, feeding on a wide range of insects. It is a monogamous, colonial nester, often living in mixed-species colonies of about 2-10 breeding pairs. It usually takes control of old tunnels excavated by other birds, building a small pad out of diverse materials glued together with saliva, which it places in the chamber at the tunnel's end. Here it lays 2-4 eggs, which are incubated for about 28 days. The chicks are born with a grey-coloured down, and are cared for by both parents.

Apus pallidus (Pallid swift)

Cypsiurus parvus (African palm-swift, Palm swift)

The African palm-swift originated in the lowland forests of Equatorial Africa, but now it occurs across sub-Saharan Africa, preferring savanna or urban areas with scattered palm trees. In the last 60-70 years its range has expanded exponentially, due to human exploits and the planting of palm trees. It usually lives in colonies of up to 100 active nests, which each consist of a shallow cup, mostly made of feathers glued together with saliva, normally placed on the upper side of palm fronds. Here it lays 1-2 eggs, which the female immediately glues to the nest, using her own saliva. The eggs are then incubated by both sexes, for 18-22 days. The chicks are brooded and fed by both sexes, leaving the nest when they are about 29-33 days old, at which point they become fully independent.

Neafrapus boehmi (Böhm's spinetail)


Schoutedenapus myoptilus (Scarce swift)

Tachymarptis aequatorialis (Mottled swift) 


Tachymarptis melba (Alpine swift)

The Alpine swift is patchily distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, and is most common in southern Africa, especially in Namibia and South Africa. It forages in mixed species flocks, along with other swifts and swallows, and can travel up to about 1000 km's in a day! It tends to fly at extremely high altitudes, however it does occasionally come down to the ground to feed on grasshoppers, honey bees, etc. It is a colonial nester, living in colonies of about 20-35 breeding pairs, who construct bowl-shaped nests, usually placed so that they bridge a vertical rock crack, with multiple nests often stacked on top of each other, like apartment blocks. Nests tend to be reused over multiple breeding seasons, in fact a 28 year old colony has been recorded in the Western Cape.

Telacanthura ussheri (Mottled spinetail)

The Mottled spinetail is patchily distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, and is most common along the West African coast. In southern Africa it is scarce and localised, with scattered populations in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the Caprivi Strip. It mainly forages in small flocks, usually over dense woodland, such as miombo (Brachystegia) woodland, evergreen and riverine forest, etc. It usually lives in colonies of about 2-5 breeding pairs, however it does occasionally nest solitarily. The nest is a half saucer, built of a wide variety of materials glued together with saliva. It is almost always placed in a cavity in a Baobab tree, however in other parts of Africa it also nests in buildings and crevices.