Blue swallow -- 蓝燕 (Hirundo atrocaerulea)

Blue swallow brooding chicks in nest
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Blue swallow fact file

Blue swallow description

GenusHirundo (1)

The magnificent blue swallow is a relatively easily identifiable species as the adult birds have a highly lustrous dark metallic steel-blue appearance with long tail streamers, which are particularly noticeable in males. White feathers are visible on the rump and flanks when the birds are preening and especially during courtship. In poor light, blue swallows appear almost black and therefore can be mistaken for black sawwing swallows (Psalidoprogne holomelas) which occur throughout the breeding range of the blue swallow (5) (7). Young blue swallows start life a brownish-grey, acquiring their blue colour as they mature (5). This species has a musical ‘bee-bee-bee-bee’ call when in flight (7).

Hirondelle bleue.
Male wingspan: 103.5 – 119.5 mm (2)
Female wingspan: 101 – 111 mm (2)
Male tail length: 92.6 – 155.2 mm (2)
Female tail length: 60 – 81 mm (2)
Male weight: 13.1 – 15.8 g (2) (3)
Female weight: 12.5 – 14 g (3) (4)

Blue swallow biology

The blue swallow arrives on the breeding range at the end of September and constructs cup-shaped nests from mud and grass on the inside of sinkholes cavities, aardvark burrows and old mine shafts. The breeding system of the blue swallow is not well understood although co-operative breeding has been widely recorded in this species. The nests are lined with fine grass, animal hair and white feathers. Normally, three white eggs are laid. They are incubated by the female for 14 days, and the chicks are fed for approximately 22 days until they fledge. Once fledged, the young spend the next couple of days around the nest site before disappearing. Most blue swallows will nest for a second time before returning to the over-wintering grounds in April (2).

Blue swallows feed on small, soft-bodied flies and other arthropods, catching them on the wing (2).


Blue swallow range

The blue swallow migrates seasonally within the African continent, breeding in South Africa, west Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Malawi, northeast Zambia, southwestern Tanzania, west Mozambique and southeast Democratic Republic of Congo, and wintering in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, south Uganda and west Kenya (7). In 2002 there were estimated to be around 1,500 pairs remaining (8).


Blue swallow habitat

In the breeding range, the blue swallow inhabits areas of rolling montane grasslands where rainfall is high (7). In the non-breeding range, this species prefers open grassland with very large wetlands (5) (7).


Blue swallow status

The blue swallow is classified globally as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), although this classification is currently under review, and as Critically Endangered in South Africa (5). It is also listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (6).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Blue swallow threats

The grassland habitat of the blue swallow is being diminished at an unprecedented rate. The main causes of this habitat loss are afforestation, human settlement, agricultural expansion, over-grazing by livestock, and the invasion of alien plants. In the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, the grassland habitat of the blue swallow declined by 46 per cent between 1981 and 2000 (3).


Blue swallow conservation

The blue swallow breeds within national parks in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Swaziland (7), and an international species conservation action plan is in place (8). However, without the official intervention of government agencies and the expansion of the network of formal protected areas, the future of this species hangs in the balance (5).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

For further information on the blue swallow see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:



Authenticated (03/06/08) by James Wakelin, Biodiversity Planner, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.



The establishment of forest by natural succession or by the planting of trees on land where they did not grow formerly.
A very diverse phylum (a major grouping of animals) that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Co-operative breeding
Co-operative breeding in birds can be best identified when three or more individuals contribute towards raising a single brood at a single nest site. Non-parental helpers at the nest assist with the feeding and raising of young birds.


  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2008)
  2. Spottiswoode, C.N. (2005) Family Hirundinidae (Swallows and Martins). In: Hockey, P.A.R. and Dean W.R.J. and Ryan, P.G. (Eds) Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. Seventh Edition. John Voelker Bird Fund, Cape Town.
  3. Wakelin, J. and Hill, T. (2007) The impact of land transformation on breeding blue swallows Hirundo atrocaerulea undevall, in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Journal for Nature Conservation, 15: 245 - 255.
  4. Wakelin, J. (2003) SAFRING Results - Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea. Avian Demography Unit, Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town. Available at:
  5. Wakelin, J. (2008) Pers. comm.
  6. CMS (May, 2008)
  7. BirdLife International (May, 2005)
  8. Evans, S., Cohen, L., Sande, E., Monadjem, A., Hoffmann, D., Mattison, H., Newbery, P., Ndanganga, K. and Friedmann, Y. (2002) Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea) International Action Plan. Final Workshop Report, Conservation Breeding Specialist Group South Africa.

Image credit

Blue swallow brooding chicks in nest  
Blue swallow brooding chicks in nest

© Dr Warwick Tarboton

Warwick Tarboton
P.O. Box 327
South Africa


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