Bird Watcher's General Store

Swallows vs. Flycatchers Explained

Dear Bird Folks,

This may seem like a stupid question, but I’d like to know what the difference is between a swallow and a flycatcher, or are they one and the same? I used to work on a farm that attracted tons of swallows, but the farmer always called them “flycatchers.” Are they the same?

- Marci, Topsfield, MA

Relax, Marci,

If I were to rank the top one million “stupid” questions that I’ve received over the years, yours wouldn’t even make the list. And believe me, there is a list. For example, here’s one that did make the list. A lady once asked me why the food wouldn’t stay in her feeder. She told me that every time she put in the seed, it would immediately pour out. The woman then demonstrated what she was doing. Because I have a college degree and years of birdfeeder experience, I instantly knew how to help her. I suggested that she rotate the feeder 180 degrees. “How would that help?” she asked. I replied (with a touch of disbelief), “It would help because you have been hanging your feeder upside down.” Yes, you read that right. This lady would fill her feeder and, for whatever reason, hang it upside down. Then, out poured the seed. I know it seems hard to believe, but I swear on the grave of John James Audubon, it really happened. Even the part about me having a college degree is true, which may be the biggest shocker of all.

Swallows are one of the farmer’s best friends. They not only eat tons of insects but they do it for free. Go to any farm in the summer and you are almost certain to see swallows zipping over the fields, chowing down mouthfuls of bugs. They are so important for insect control that it’s only a matter of time before farmers erect a statue in their honor. I just hope they don’t mistakenly erect a statue of a flycatcher because they are not the same. In their defense, we can’t expect farmers to know the correct name of every bird. Farmers have too many other things to worry about. They have to watch the weather, make sure their soil has the right pH level and try to convince the public that Brussels sprouts are edible. Good luck to them with that.

While both swallows and flycatchers love to eat flies, there is a major difference in the methods the two birds use to catch the flies. Swallows are highly energetic birds and masters of flight. They spend a good portion of their day flying over fields, bodies of water and other open spaces searching for food. When foraging, swallows act like a falcon. Once they lock onto prey, there is no getting away. Occasionally, they’ll come across a swarm of insects. In those cases, they’ll blast through the swarm using their large, gaping mouths to scoop as many lovely buggy-things as they can.

Flycatchers laugh at the swallow’s manic feeding methods. Zipping about all day is the last thing they want to do. They are quite content to sit and wait for the food to come to them. Typically, a flycatcher will perch on a branch and watch the skies. The instant an insect comes within range the bird will dart out, pluck it out of the air and return to the branch. It then devours the prey and resumes its sit-and-wait position. While flycatchers don’t have the super-sized mouths that swallows have, many do have whiskers (really called “bristles”) on the sides of their mouths. The reason for these whiskers is not totally understood. They may help the birds collect the insects, or protect their eyes from the sharp wings and legs of larger insects or they may just be a fashion statement. More study is needed, but I’m betting on the fashion statement.

With a few notable exceptions, flycatchers are rather dull-plumaged birds. Some species of flycatchers look so similar they can only be identified by their voice. In fact, some researchers feel that the birds themselves can’t even identify their own species unless they are singing. Swallows, on the other hand, don’t do much singing. One of the main reasons songbirds sing is to announce their territory, but many swallows are gregarious. They love each other’s company, even during the breeding season and thus have no set territories to defend. Therefore, they have little need to wake up super early and do all that silly singing like other birds do. Swallows are smart.

Because swallows are sociable, Marci, if you see one you are likely to see several. This is not the case with flycatchers, which are basically loners. The farm you worked on may have had a flycatcher or two hanging around, but if there were “tons” of them, as you noted, then I’m sure they were swallows. The farmer probably called them “flycatchers” because they caught flies. It makes sense. The thing to remember is that swallows fly constantly when foraging, while flycatchers sit and wait for the food to come to them. Hey, come to think of it, I have a teenage son who is a lot like a flycatcher. Only instead of sitting on a perch waiting for a fly, he sits on the couch and waits for a job to somehow find him. So far, that hasn’t happened, but he is starting to attract flies.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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