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Swallows, House Martins and Swifts – Birds of summer that need our buildings

9th May 2019
Guest blog post written by Peta Sams from Shropshire Swift Group

The saying “One Swallow doesn’t make a summer” may, literally, have been disproved this year!  Certainly the very hot days over the Easter holiday has made it feel like as though we have moved to summer and spring has now gone.

I saw my first swallow on 8th April and numbers seemed to build up fairly quickly although, as I live in a town, I do not see as many of these birds as those who live in the countryside.  These birds, who full name is Barn Swallow, typically arrive in April and are here until early September eating only insects to feed themselves and their young.  I remember in the 80s walking through a park on the Wirral at lunchtimes and having swallows feeding low over the grass as we disturbed the insect as we walked through.  They will typically have 2 or maybe 3 broods of 4 or 5 chicks in a good year – so can raise a dozen chicks if conditions are right.  These birds need to build their nests, which are mud cups, inside buildings often on a ledge or wooden beam across a building.  They like somewhere that is not too bright and, as might be guessed from their name, a barn is a frequent choice.  But open barns are not as common as they once were so swallows are finding new places – sometimes carports and frequently church porches which are open and provide good access.

Swift photo by David Moreton

This year I saw my first House Martin on 18th April – just 10 days after the first swallow.  We used to live in a house where these birds nested and I have been trying to attract them to wherever I have lived ever since – so far without success.  It would be a real pleasure to have them back.  I love watching them wheeling through the sky chattering to each other.  Again these birds are great insect eaters and will be with us until supplies diminish in September.  They also build mud cups for their nests in which to raise 2 or sometimes 3 broods of chicks.  These cups are on the outside of buildings – often under eaves or at the apex of a gable.  They, like swallows, nest in so called colonies – several nests in one area as they are social birds.  Not like robins and many other birds that lay claim to their territory and fiercely defend it against others.

The last of our migrants who are dependent on our buildings to breed are Swifts.  They start to arrive at the end of April although, with the exceptional Easter weather, I have already heard reports of arrivals of these birds.  You will never see the nest of a Swift – these birds use nooks and crannies often under eaves and they swoop in and drop out so quickly and quietly that you may not often see them.  Swifts only land to lay eggs and raise their young – they are airborne for the rest of their lives. As they are only here until the start of August so a pair of birds only has time to raise just 1 or 2 chicks a year.

The first sighting of each of these summer birds who have each flown over 5000 miles from south of the Sahara where they have spent our winter is a special moment each year for many of us but they are all struggling to find suitable nesting sites.  They are very faithful to the nest sites that they used in previous years so returning to find them blocked or destroyed is a major problem for them – they simply cannot just find another nest site.  ‘Oh – they can go somewhere else’  is a common attitude but it is simply not true.

As a nation we love feeding birds in our garden and putting up nest boxes for small birds but somehow don’t think so much about how these special summer birds that need our buildings. We cannot feed them directly – they are insect eaters – although we can all take action to try to restore the insect population that has plummeted so drastically in recent years.

Rather than trying to exclude these birds, we need to think how we can accommodate them and manage the mess that they make for a few weeks each year. There are some things we can do to help with this – sometimes it is possible to put a shelf under swallow and house martin nests to catch droppings. I have seen churches also use cardboard boxes with a stone in it to stop it blowing away – this is a great idea as it can just be replaced when needed – and I have even seen a cat litter tray being used to catch droppings. Swifts actually remove the droppings from their nests and so do not cause this problem.

There are many church communities where the swallows and martins are cherished (as indeed they should be) and who have had ingenious ideas to accommodate them but sadly I have seen many churches just using netting to exclude them – perhaps thinking that they can move to somewhere else, but that isn’t the case.  Birds may fly back from Africa to find that they cannot get their nests – they are homeless and are unlikely to be able to breed.  So if we are happy to clear up after our cats and dogs – and expect those with these pets to do so – please can we all be more accommodating of our summer birds who have chosen our house, carport, church porch etc to nest, and think of ways to help them for the few short week that they are with us.

For more information on swifts and other birds we have an Action Pack sheet here. 
Also the Swift Conservation Society can offer support and should be able to direct you to your local Swift Group such as the Shropshire Swift Group.