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What color is the house martin?

The house martin is a small, agile bird known for its ability to maneuver swiftly through the air. With its sharply pointed wings and forked tail, the house martin is beautifully adapted for aerial hunting of insects. But what about its coloration? Let’s take a closer look at the plumage of this common summertime visitor.

The house martin (Delichon urbicum) is a member of the swallow family known for its association with humans. It builds mud nests under the eaves of buildings and feeds on insects caught on the wing. The house martin arrives in northern climes in spring to breed and spends winters in Africa. With its glossy blue-black upperparts and pure white underparts, the house martin is familiar to people across Eurasia. But the details of its coloration reveal adaptations related to flight, communication, and climate. Read on to learn more about what gives this aerial acrobat its distinctive look.


The upperparts of the house martin are colored deep blue-black with a purple-green iridescent sheen. The feathers on the back and wings appear black at first glance. But when sunlight hits them, they shimmer with an oily gloss that shifts between purple and greenish-blue. This iridescent sheen is the result of light refracting off the feather structure. Melanin pigments in the feathers absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, producing the color-shifting effect. The iridescence serves no known purpose related to flight or thermal regulation. However, it may serve a signaling function in mate choice or rivalry between individuals. The structured color highlights the martins’ agile flying maneuvers during aerial courtship displays.


In contrast to the dark blue-black upperparts, the underparts of the house martin are clean white. The white throat, breast, belly, and undertail coverts provide a stark contrast to the dark upperparts. This coloration pattern is common in aerial insectivorous birds like swallows and swifts. The dark upperparts camouflage the birds against predators viewing them from below. While the pale underparts make them less visible against the bright sky when viewed from below. This color configuration is known as countershading and likely provides protective benefits as the martins hawk for insects high in the air.


The head of the house martin is colored in the same glossy blue-black as the back and wings. A neat triangular white patch sits on the forehead, separated from the white throat by a black band across the eyes and lores. This white forehead patch serves as an important signaling element during displays. Both sexes have this plumage patch, but it tends to be larger in males. Martins expose the patch during threat displays, chase flights, and aerial courtship maneuvers. The patch likely evolved through sexual selection as a visual signal of fitness during mating contests and mate choice.


The coloration of house martins is quite consistent across their widespread range. However, there are four recognized subspecies that show subtle variations:

Subspecies Range Variation
D. u. urbicum Europe, NW Africa Nominate
D. u. lagopodum Eastern Siberia, China Slightly larger
D. u. saturata Northwest India More purple gloss
D. u. transitiva Iran to Turkmenistan Longer tail streamers

The differences between subspecies are subtle. But they likely reflect minor local adaptations and geographic variation. The complex aerodynamics of the martins’ shape supports quick, precise flight needed to catch flying insects. So any major deviations from the species’ streamlined form could incur significant flight costs. The overall similarity shows the color pattern remains optimal across the range.

Molt and Plumage Wear

The glossy coloration of house martins is the result of fresh plumage grown on the wintering grounds. After breeding, house martins molt into a distinct drab non-breeding plumage. This cryptic outfit likely provides camouflage from predators during the vulnerably flightless molting period. The fresh breeding plumage is attained through a pre-nuptial molt before the northward migration. Once breeding begins, the martins’ feathers gradually degrade from abrasion and exposure to the elements. By summer’s end, the formerly glossy feathers appear faded and tattered. But the rapid molt on the wintering grounds restores the martins’ sleek colors for the next breeding season.

Juvenile Plumage

Juvenile house martins have drabber plumage than the adults. Freshly fledged chicks have sooty brown upperparts rather than the glossy blue-black of adults. Their underparts are gray-brown rather than pure white. And the forehead patch is smaller or even absent. Within a few months, the young birds molt into their adult-like non-breeding plumage. By their first breeding season, they sport the full vibrant colors and flashy iridescence of mature house martins. The subdued juvenile plumage likely serves a camouflaging function, protecting vulnerable chicks during their first flights.


The diet of aerial insectivores like house martins poses unique challenges related to carotenoid pigments. Many bright avian colors stem from carotenoids – pigments absorbed from food. But aerial insects provide only trace levels of scarlet and yellow pigments. Instead, the iridescent sheen of house martins relies on nanostructures and melanins. These black and iridescent hues are produced directly by the birds rather than absorbed from prey. Aerial foragers’ cryptic color palette matches the limited carotenoid availability in their insectivorous diet.

Comparison with Related Species

The house martin’s black and white color pattern distinguishes it from related species:

Species Image Color Pattern
House martin House martin Black upperparts, white underparts, white forehead patch
Barn swallow Barn swallow Iridescent blue upperparts, reddish-brown forehead and throat, pale underparts
Sand martin Sand martin Brown upperparts, white underparts, brown breastband

While similar, each species can be distinguished by subtle differences in color pattern, such as the forehead patch size and throat coloration. These differences may help the birds recognize their own species during aerial feeding and breeding. The variation permits spatial and dietary partitioning between the species, reducing competition.


From its shimmering purple-blue back to its sharply demarcated black and white patterning, the house martin is exquisitely colored for life on the wing. The dark upperparts camouflage against predators from below, while the white underparts disappear against the bright sky. Showy white forehead patches facilitate communication and display in flight. Iridescence and melanins provide visual flair without reliance on scarce dietary carotenoids. And the drab juvenile and non-breeding plumages provide seasonal cryptic camouflage when needed. So whether perching at the nest or artfully coursing through the air, the house martin’s coloration reveals the many selective forces acting on birds that make a living on the wing.