The Urban Countryside – The Swallow

by Albert Nolan

The kids were tucking into their breakfast and with a few moments to spare before the school rush started I opened the front door to listen to the morning bird song. Initially all I heard were the cats meowing but a quick handful of cat food and order was soon restored. A black bird was singing across the road but the bird I had been waiting for had finally arrived.

The Swallows have returned to the skies above our town and even if they don’t bring the weather with them they still carry the joyous sounds of spring. The males arrive first and establish their territory before the females come. Swallows have an in build radar that allows them to return to the same shed where they were raised and they can remain faithful to the same location for their entire lives. This was often thought off as a myth but the ringing of birds has proved the navigational abilities of swallows but as yet science cannot fully explain how they do it. Many theories are put forward including the use of the moon and stars, remembering key features in the landscape and a tiny crystal in the brain. Personally I am not sure but I think it nice to have a few mysteries remain around migration.

After their long journey from Africa they will spend a few weeks fattening up before starting the rigorous job of raising a family. Last years wet cold summer had a big affect and with very few insects around many swallows were unable to raise their chicks. This year the prolonged cold spell has not being good for swallows but there are several things we can do to help birds. In our gardens and communities try leaving wild margins and areas of grass uncut. This will produce wildflowers that will attract loads of insects. These in turn will be eaten by birds. Also reducing the amount of chemicals we use in our gardens and communities will have a beneficial affect by increasing the insect population.

The nests are built with tiny pellets. The swallow gathers up some mud in its beak and mixes it with saliva to bind it together. It then glues the pellet in place and has to repeat this task dozens of times to complete its home. When it hardens this makes a very strong and durable nest. They are usually built on the timber roof supports of sheds and swallows tend to nest alone. I don’t think they reuse or repair old nests and prefer to build a new one from scratch.

When live cattle marts were a regular occurrence in the urban environment swallows gathered in big numbers to feast. The cows attracted masses of insects and these aerial bandits would swoop between the wellies and the swishing tails to grab a tasty morsel.

People once believed that swallows hibernated in the mud at the bottom of lakes or floated in the sky like clouds. Today in our knowledge driven world we longer believe in such stories but in the process I think that nature has lost a little bit of its romance. Thankfully there are still plenty of mysteries and children’s questions to engage

So if you’re out and about today keep an eye out for the swallows.

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