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Fascinating Facts about the Brown-Backed Needletail Bird

Birdwatching is undoubtedly a wonderful hobby that allows enthusiasts to experience the fascinating world of birds. One of the most exciting members of the bird family is the Brown-backed Needletail, scientifically known as Hirundapus giganteus.

This bird belongs to the family Apodidae, and it is considered to be one of the most remarkable birds in the world due to its unique features. In this article, we will take a detailed look at the Brown-backed Needletail bird species, focusing on its identification, plumages, and molts.


Field Identification

Brown-backed Needletail birds are classified under the Apodidae family, which is commonly referred to as the swift family. They are known for their unique physical features, which include their brown back, pale greyish throat, and dark wings.

The outer tail streamers of this bird species are elongated, which makes it easy to identify them. Brown-backed Needletails are small in size, with a wingspan measuring around 36-46cm.

Similar Species

It’s essential to note that the Brown-backed Needletail bird species can be easily confused with other types of swifts. One of the common species mistaken for it is the Fork-tailed Swift (Apus pacificus), which also has elongated tail streamers.

However, the contrasting features between the two include Fork-tailed Swift having a much shorter and rounder tail, darker back, and slightly paler throat. Additionally, the Chestnut-collared Swift (Streptoprocne rutila) can be confused with the Brown-backed Needletail, especially the females, but their body color has a distinctive rufous or chestnut collar on the neck.


Brown-backed Needletail birds have two distinctive plumages; they are the adult and the juvenile plumages. The adult Brown-backed Needletail bird has a brown back, dark wings, and a distinctive pale greyish throat with an elongated forked tail.

They also have silver-grey underparts, and the wings have a broad white stripe. These birds have a dark cap that extends up to the eye, and their upperparts have a glossy purplish sheen.

On the other hand, the juvenile plumage of the Brown-backed Needletail is much duller than that of the adults with a rufous-brown tint on its upperparts, lighter underparts. Juveniles lack the elongated tail feathers, which are later acquired in the first adult plumage.


Like all bird species, Brown-backed Needletail birds undergo molting processes, which occur regularly. During this process, the old feathers are replaced with new ones, which help the bird maintain its physical integrity.

Brown-backed Needletail birds undergo partial molting, which happens in the non-breeding season. This molting process happens between May and August, whereby the flight feathers are replaced.


Birdwatching enthusiasts find Brown-backed Needletail birds to be fascinating due to their unique features, and their swift and graceful flight makes them a delight to observe in the wild. Identifying them is relatively easy, especially with their elongated tail streamers serving as the distinctive feature.

By understanding their plumages and molts, bird watchers can learn a lot about their life cycle and behavior, making it possible to identify them quickly in the future. As always, when observing these birds, its important to respect their environment and not tamper with their habitat to maintain their existence in their natural world.

Systematics History

The Brown-backed Needletail, scientifically known as Hirundapus giganteus, is a member of the Apodidae family, which belongs to the order Apodiformes. This species has always been in a state of confusion regarding its systematic placement, which gradually led to the current classification.

Early taxonomists, such as Temminck and Bonaparte, initially classified it under the genus Cypselus. Later, it was categorized under the genus Chaetura, but it wasn’t until 1855 when Strickland and Sclater used the name Hirundapus for this species, recognizing its distinctiveness from other swifts.

Geographic Variation

The Brown-backed Needletail is known for its wide-ranging global distribution. This bird species can be found throughout Asia, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and even into southern China.

It also occurs in Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and in Madagascar. It has also been observed a few times in Australia and Europe.

Its broad distribution has led to geographical variations of this bird species.


The Brown-backed Needletail has several subspecies that can be categorized depending on geographical distribution. Hirundapus giganteus giganteus: This subspecies of the Brown-backed Needletail is primarily found in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Hirundapus giganteus affinis: This subspecies of the Brown-backed Needletail can be found throughout Myanmar, Thailand, and southern China. Hirundapus giganteus orientalis: This subspecies of the Brown-backed Needletail is found throughout Java, Bali, and the islands of Indonesia.

Hirundapus giganteus sonorivox: Hirundapus giganteus sonorivox is a rare subspecies of the Brown-backed Needletail that is found in the Socotra Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Related Species

Brown-backed Needletail birds are related to other swift species like Apus, Cypselus, and Streptoprocne. The Brown-backed Needletail’s elevational range is less restricted than most other swift species, which enhances their chances of survival in areas where they coexist.

The similar species to Hirundapus giganteus include:

1. Grey-backed Needletail (Hirundapus giganteus)


Silver-backed Needletail (Hirundapus cochinchinensis)

3. White-throated Needletail (Hirundapus caudacutus)

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Brown-backed Needletail bird species have gone through a range of changes in their distribution over time. It is believed that originally Hirundapus giganteus had a more extensive distribution range, but habitat destruction, climate change, and other human activities have restricted their range.

In India, the Brown-backed Needletail was once observed in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu and the nearby states of Karnataka and Kerala, but their numbers have significantly reduced due to habitat loss. In Sri Lanka, these birds were once observed in highland areas, but they are now rare.

The Brown-backed Needletail was first recorded in China in 1917 in Yunnan Province, but sightings have been irregular; therefore, researchers have insufficient information about their population trend or distribution. In the Arabian Peninsula, Brown-backed Needletails are only known to breed in Oman, and in the Socotra Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In Africa, there have been reports of breeding in Ethiopia and Uganda, but they are rare. Madagascar has also recorded sightings of Hirundapus giganteus, but still, their occurrence in this location remains in question.


The Brown-backed Needletail is an exciting bird that possesses a unique classification history, subspecies, and distribution range. Its wide distribution has led to the development of geographical variations and allowed for the evolution of subspecies.

While the bird species can be found in various regions of the world, their distribution has significantly reduced in some of their natural habitats due to human activities. However, researchers continue to study these changes to help implement effective conservation measures to protect the species and its habitat.


The Brown-backed Needletail bird species thrives best in habitats, which are conducive to its unique body structure and needs. Forest edges, cultivated lands, grasslands, and open country areas are some of the habitats that are ideal for this bird.

In the Himalayas, they inhabit high-altitude areas that are above 3,000 meters, while in other parts of Asia, the Brown-backed Needletail birds inhabit pine and deciduous woodlands. They are adaptable to different types of habitats, making it easy to spot them in different locations worldwide.

Movements and Migration

Brown-backed Needletail birds are known for their remarkable flight abilities, and they are some of the most active birds when it comes to movement and migration. These birds have the ability to fly long distances without stopping, making their migration patterns somewhat unique.

Despite their tendency to fly long distances, these birds do not migrate annually. In Southeast Asia, Brown-backed Needletail birds are primarily considered residents, meaning they do not move seasonally.

In India, they are found to be winter visitors from August to October and then become regular from November to March. In Ethiopia, they are considered visitors that migrate from October to May, while in Sri Lanka, they are known to be non-breeding residents.

In East Africa, the Brown-backed Needletail birds have been seen in large flocks during the rainy season. After breeding, the birds then move north.

In Madagascar, however, the birds are more active and tend to fly over longer distances at high altitudes. Migration patterns for Brown-backed Needletail birds can be unpredictable and irregular, making it challenging for birdwatchers to track their movements.

However, their stunning aerial displays and active flight patterns are some of the reasons why bird enthusiasts continue to track and observe them. Climate change and habitat destruction have impacted bird migration patterns, and Brown-backed Needletail birds are not an exception.

As human activities continue to destroy important ecosystems and natural habitats, the trend of erratic and unpredictable migration patterns is likely to continue. This makes it imperative for conservationists and bird watchers to continue studying these movements to aid in the bird’s conservation efforts.


Birdwatching is a great way to observe and appreciate the Brown-backed Needletail birds in their natural habitats. Brown-backed Needletail birds inhabit various habitats, and their movement patterns exhibit their flexibility in adapting to different conditions, while their unique aerial displays are a delight for bird enthusiasts to witness.

However, the erratic and irregular migration patterns highlight the impact that climate change and habitat destruction are having on bird migration. Therefore, there is a need for bird conservation efforts to be intensified to preserve and protect the habitats that these birds and other bird species need to thrive and continue existing in their natural environments.

Diet and Foraging

Brown-backed Needletail birds are unique in their feeding habits and foraging behavior. They are known to feed opportunistically, collecting prey while airborne, making use of their aerial skills to glide and capture insects mid-flight.

Their diet is predominantly composed of insects and arthropods, which they prey on while on the move.


Brown-backed Needletail birds feed predominantly on aerial prey that they capture while on the wing. They can be observed using their keen eyesight to locate potential prey, which they capture using their bill, while in flight.

These birds possess excellent maneuvering skills that allow them to perform aerial acrobatics to capture insects while in flight.


The Brown-backed Needletail bird species feeds on a variety of insects and arthropods. Prey includes beetles, winged termites, flies, cicadas, moths, and insect nymphs.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Brown-backed Needletail birds have developed several adaptations to regulate their body temperature while in flight. These adaptations are crucial for their survival, as their metabolism produces a substantial amount of heat energy during long periods of flight.

Brown-backed Needletail birds have a high metabolic rate, which allows them to sustain high levels of activity and flight. Their ability to regulate their body temperature while in flight aids in maintaining high metabolic rates.

They have developed a thermoregulation process that involves flapping their wings to increase blood flow, which helps to dissipate excess body heat. They are also able to reduce their metabolic rate in response to reduced temperature requirements during periods of rest.

Sounds and Vocal


Vocalization is an essential trait for Brown-backed Needletail birds. Their vocalizations play a vital role in communication, mate selection, and territoriality.


Brown-backed Needletail birds vocalize using a variety of sounds, including high-pitched calls that are audible over long distances. The calls are repetitive and can be heard repeatedly in flight, often described as being similar to a high-pitched ‘zipping’ sound.

They also use a range of other calls, including whirring, chattering, and screeching sounds, which can be heard during courtship displays and territorial disputes. Brown-backed Needletail birds have unique physical and behavioral characteristics that have allowed them to thrive in different environments.

Their unique feeding habits and dietary needs require special adaptations that allow them to capture prey while airborne, while their vocalizations play a vital role in communication, mate selection, and territoriality. By studying these unique traits, birdwatchers can gain a better appreciation of the complex nature of these fascinating birds.


Behavior plays a crucial role in the survival and adaptation of the Brown-backed Needletail bird species to their environment. These birds exhibit unique behaviors that are particularly suited to their feeding, mating, and territorial needs.


The Brown-backed Needletail bird species exhibit highly specialized locomotor abilities that allow them to become highly efficient aerial predators. They can fly effortlessly through the air with incredible speed and agility, reaching speeds of up to 110 km/hr while on the wing.

They are known for their unique maneuvering abilities, which allow them to literally skim the surface of water bodies, ascend steep mountain slopes and fly up to high altitudes.

Self Maintenance

The Brown-backed Needletail bird species engage in frequent self-grooming behaviors that help promote their overall physical well-being. They use their bills to preen their feathers, using oil glands located at the base of their tails to help keep their feathers healthy and well-oiled.

They also engage in bathing and dusting to help keep their feathers clean and free from lice and other harmful parasites. Agonistic


Brown-backed Needletail birds exhibit unique agonistic behaviors, particularly during territorial confrontations with rival conspecifics.

They are known to perform complex aerial displays, including spiraling, diving, and chasing behaviors to indicate their dominance over a given territory. Agonistic behaviors can also be observed during feeding, particularly when the birds have to compete for a limited food supply.



Sexual behavior is a prominent feature of Brown-backed Needletail birds during the breeding season. These birds engage in elaborate courtship displays, which play a significant role in mate selection and pair bonding.

Courtship displays include aerial acrobatics, wing flapping, and tail fanning, all aimed at attracting female mates. During the breeding season, the Brown-backed Needletail species also exhibit territorial behaviors aimed at defending their territories against potential rivals.


Brown-backed Needletail birds breed during the rainy season, which varies depending on the geographical location. Mating usually occurs between February and June in South Asia, and between February and March in Southeast Asia.

These birds typically form monogamous pair bonds, which last for the duration of the breeding season. Females in the Brown-backed Needletail bird species lay a single egg, which is incubated for approximately four weeks.

Both male and female birds take turns incubating the egg, and both birds feed the hatched chick until it is able to fend for itself.

Demography and Populations

The Brown-backed Needletail bird species has a wide range, and as such, population estimates vary significantly across different regions. In some areas, the population is stable and abundant, while in others, it is threatened due to habitat loss and degradation.

In India, the Brown-backed Needletail bird species is classified as ‘Least Concern,’ and while large numbers of birds can still be observed during breeding season a decline in populations has been noted due to habitat fragmentation, hunting and loss of foraging sites. In some parts of Africa and Madagascar, the Brown-backed Needletail bird species is considered rare due to habitat loss and degradation.

In Southeast Asia, the Brown-backed Needletail population is considered stable, and the bird is classified as ‘Least Concern’, but conservation efforts should be implemented to protect and monitor populations.


The Brown-backed Needletail is a remarkable bird species with unique characteristics, behavior, and life history. Their distinctive aerial acrobatics and movement, self-maintenance, territorial display, mating, and breeding behaviors make them fascinating to observe.

The effects of climate change and habitat loss have impacted populations globally and continue to threaten the existence of this elusive bird species. Understanding their behavioral patterns and contributing to conservation efforts can help protect their populations and maintain the habitat required for their long-term survival.

In conclusion, the Brown-backed Needletail bird species is truly fascinating with a rich and diverse history, unique characteristics, and behaviors. From their remarkable aerial acrobatics, specialized feeding habits, and vocalizations, to their adaptation to changing environments, mating and breeding behaviors, the Brown-backed Needletail offers a wealth of research opportunities for ornithologists and birdwatchers.

However, populations face threats, particularly from climatic change and habitat loss, which highlight the importance of conservation and monitoring efforts. The study of Brown-backed Needletail bird behavior and populations is crucial not only for appreciating its natural history but also for their long-term conservation and

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