Recent studies have suggested that the proximal part of the swallow (Hirundo rustica) tail streamer appears to aid turning flight, as expected if streamers evolved initially purely through natural selection for enhanced manoeuvrability. However, the evolution of slender aerodynamically advantageous streamers is also predicted by an alternative hypothesis, which suggests that such a trait could develop primarily to ameliorate the aerodynamic cost of a long size-dimorphic tail. To distinguish between these hypotheses, we have investigated for the effect on manoeuvrability of trimming the tips of the outer tail feathers into short streamers, without lengthening these feathers, in two streamerless hirundine species--the house martin (Delichon urbica) and the sand martin (Riparia riparia). This allowed us to examine the aerodynamic costs and benefits of streamers at an early evolutionary stage that predates elongation of the outermost tail feathers through female choice. We showed that such initial streamers enhance manoeuvrability in streamerless hirundines, confirming the findings of recent studies. However, in contrast to these studies, we showed that improved manoeuvrability resulting from streamers could arise before the outermost tail feathers have become elongated (e.g. owing to female choice). The occurrence of such an aerodynamic advantage depends on the ancestral shape of a forked tail. This provides support for the hypothesis that streamers, like those in the barn swallow, might evolve initially purely through natural selection for enhanced manoeuvrability.