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Wildlife Chronicles

‘Out of Africa’ (a tale of an epic journey)

Out of all our seasonal avian visitors I think the House Martin, ‘this guest of summer’ as Shakespeare put it, is our most endearing bird. It has had a long association with the structures created by man upon which they build their characteristic mud nests.

The tale begins in the spring when there is a mass exodus of these birds ‘Out of Africa’ when they migrate thousands of miles over land and sea to brighten up our summers. They start to arrive in Britain in April but their numbers peak in May. Where in the vast African continent they spend our winter no one is certain it is still a mystery that puzzles ornithologists. From about 300,000 House Martins ringed in Britain and Ireland there has only been one recovery from south of the Sahara, in Nigeria to be exact, otherwise there have been over 1,000 recoveries of ringed birds 90% of them in Britain & Ireland. Its likely that they spend most of the time on the wing unseen by man high up over some great expanse of a sub-Saharan savannah or African Forest feeding on insect prey and only evident when bush-fires take hold which no doubt send masses of insects skywards for the birds to hawk after or they are seen at lower altitudes in an effort to evade tropical storm fronts.

The House Martin is an attractive little bird with steel-blue/black upper-parts and white on the under-parts, it has a distinctive bold white rump which easily separates it from the swallows, sand martins, and swifts when in flight. It’s short ‘downy’ white- feathered legs can be seen when the bird is on the ground or clinging to the nest or a wall of a house. The tail is forked and lacks the long tail-streamers of its near cousin the Barn Swallow. The name ‘Martin’ possibly derives from the French ‘Martinet’ or ‘Martinette’. Its scientific name ‘Delichon urbica’ which is an anagram of ‘chelidon’ from the Greek khelidon - a Swallow and ‘urbicus’ pertaining to a city which presumably refers to their colonial nesting habits although I think a ‘community’ is probably a more apt description of their social interactions! In Europe they are more generally known by variations of ‘House Swallow’ I particularly like the French name for them which is ‘Hirondelle de fenetre’. They are widespread in Europe in the summer and are hardy enough to breed well within the Arctic Circle.

Stages of nest building. Image 6 shows an artificial martin nestbox -
one side of which was occupied by House Sparrows!
 

Historically their mud nests were built on inland and sea-cliffs and on overhangs in caves indeed in some areas birds still utilise these natural primeval locations where they are exposed to summer gales lashed by the salt laden sea spray. In Wales, for instance, they still breed on sea-cliffs in the Castlemartin area of Pembrokeshire probably in excess of 200 pairs and sporadically elsewhere along our extensive coastline. Whether they still nest on the cliff faces of the Great & Little Orme’s near Llandudno in North Wales I don’t know perhaps someone reading this can answer that question for me. Apparently they can be observed from the marine drive route. Local to my area in the past they have bred on the rock face of a disused open deep cavernous slate mine shaft in the Bryn Eglwys quarries above the village of Abergynolwyn in Gwynedd. I actually visited there in early June but didn’t discover any martins in the quarry its is now tenanted by kestrels. Almost exclusively nowadays you will find their nests under the overhanging eaves of buildings old and new from our homes to castles and cathedrals and bridge structures. They build the nests by collecting pellets of mud or clay which they find nearby in ponds, streams or muddy puddles and then working it into a cup shape adding bits of plant fibres to strengthen the structure forming a sealed cup apart from a small oval entrance hole which they skilfully fly in and out of during their occupation. They line the internal nest with down, feathers and other light material which is collected in the air or from the ground. The female will lay 4 or 5 white eggs in this neat little creation and both sexes will incubate the eggs for about 14 or 15 days.

They are sociable birds and their colonies can number several hundred nests on a single structure particularly in some localities in Britain and Europe. On my property in mid-Wales this year (2008) I have seven nesting pairs two of which are conjoined all of them are new nests (the record on my house stands at 21 nests!). I take the old nests down each year because they often contain some of God’s lesser creatures in the form of parasites such as feather lice, mites, ticks & flea larvae which can survive for some time probably awaiting the return of their hosts in the spring! The nests too can occasionally contain dead adults or chicks. If you make the decision to leave them up that’s fine the birds will clean them out and carry out repair work on their return in the spring. In fact the old nests left intact over the winter can provide a cosy and safe roosting site for other species which are resident such as tits and wrens. One cold frosty morning in February many years ago I counted no less than seventeen wrens emerging from a House Martin nest! The wrens undoubtedly were huddling together for warmth against the chill of the night air.

The mud nests are usually safe from the visitations of bird or mammal predators. House Sparrows will sometimes bully the martins into vacating the nests which they then use to rear their own young in fact I have a male sparrow who has been chirping away on the roof of the gable end of my house ominously above three martin nests situated under the eaves below but he is more than likely keeping an eye on his female partner who is presently sitting on a clutch of eggs in an artificial nest-box I have fitted below the eaves intended for the House Martins! Great Spotted Woodpeckers can also be a problem as they can peck their way through the mud wall of the nest to take the young martins (fixing a woodcrete nest-box would prevent them doing this- see below). Many years ago in my youth when I lived in Newtown we used to have House Martins nesting under the high eaves of our Victorian house and at dusk one summer evening I could hear the chattering of the young from within a nest but I was not the only one observing the nest, perched on a tree close by was a Tawny Owl and it to could hear the chattering of the young martins. From the behaviour of the owl and the way it stared at the nest I sensed that it may attempt to attack it so with this in mind I made as much noise as possible in order to frighten off the owl which I imagine had ‘supper’ (or is it breakfast?) in mind. My efforts failed as I watched the owl fly from the tree towards the martins nest and with remarkable agility it flipped over and took a large chunk of mud from the nest with its claws the result was that a considerable proportion of the dislodged mud structure came crashing down onto the roof of a lean-to far below the nest. I had visions of finding a brood of dead chicks in the ensuing debris but remarkably a third of the structure containing the young chicks survived. They had clung on steadfastly to what remained. The owl’s attempts were in vain and within days the adult house martins had repaired the nest and their young fledged successfully.

One of the unfortunate aspects of allowing House Martins the privilege of sharing the structure of your home is that they do tend to make a mess with their droppings especially when they have young. If this causes you annoyance then it is possible to put a tray or a board of some kind underneath the nest to catch the ‘poo’. If you look at the image of a pair nest building on my house I can tell you that the birds initially started building a nest at the front edge of the overhanging eaves but because it was inconvenient there I discouraged them from continuing by attaching some plastic bottle tops suspended by string under the eaves and the pair undeterred by my action then moved around the corner! So I gave in to their demands and allowed them to continue but at least now we can watch them from the landing and in fact I can actually see the nest from our bed. It sometimes pains my wife to see so many nests as she feels that the washing put out to dry is constantly in danger of being ‘splattered’ with their mud or droppings as indeed occasionally our windows are especially when they are constructing the nests but its nothing that a bit of soap and water won’t cure! In spite of this rather minor inconvenience caused by our ‘guests’ my wife seeing the little creatures side by side looking all fluffy cute and nice peering out of their half built cup of a nest was completely charmed by them (it never fails does it!?).

Traditionally House Martins nesting on your house were considered to be a lucky mascot so if you are tempted to tear down their nests you may have to face the consequences. You have been warned! In any case to do so would be unlawful as their nests are protected by law as is the nest of any wild bird during the breeding season. If you wish to encourage them to take up ‘residence’ under the eaves of your house then they can be easily enticed by fitting specially designed artificially manufactured nest-boxes which are made of a durable ‘woodcrete’ type of material (concrete & cement mix as illustrated in the photograph taken on my house) and obtainable from the suppliers which I have listed at the conclusion of this article. These boxes can be easily removed for cleaning at the end of the breeding season. From my observations the main consideration for the effective fixing of the nest-box under the eaves of a building is to ensure that the birds have a relatively clear flight path to and from the box.

You could indeed employ a method adopted by the family of that famous observer of the natural world Gilbert White in the mid 1700’s whose brother affixed some large scallop shells under the eaves of his house to attract House Martins it seems that this ploy worked a treat and they utilised the scallop shells in no time at all. However although this is a novel idea I personally would go for the ‘woodcrete’ type of construction which will set you back between £10 and £16 at the time of writing.

So I am really looking forward to seeing lots of young martins whizzing around my house before very long which will keep me entertained until the end of summer during which time they will probably raise two perhaps even three broods. At the end of it all there is the inevitable sadness of seeing ‘my children’ as I call them gathering on overhead wires and on roofs and preparing to make their long journey south in the autumn crossing the channel and over the vast Sahara region in their millions from all over Europe.

In sub-Sahara Africa they may well spend their time in the company of other ‘hirundines’ (swallows and sand martins). Inevitably many birds will perish on this hazardous journey south and during the winter especially in inclement weather but many more will return to our shores the following summer, probably close to the locality where they were born, to bless our homes again with their mud structures and cheerful melodious chattering where as Shakespeare observed ‘the air is delicate’. I couldn’t agree more with the old bard.

Other ways to help attract House Martins or indeed Swallows to your garden is to plant flowers which provide food for pollinating insects which are fed on by the birds. I understand that Lavender (Lavandula augustfolia) and Woodruff (Galium odoratum) are good plants for this purpose. It would be beneficial to the swallows & martins if you could spare a section of your garden to create a muddy area to provide the birds with the building material required to construct their nests and no doubt your kids would love wallowing in the mud too! My wife and I certainly did in our childhood. The BTO guide on nestboxes by Chris Du Feu suggests creating a shallow muddy puddle about 1 metre wide. The mud should be a mixture including soil, lime, clay and cow dung (a bit hard to get if you live in an urban area I imagine!). Our House Martins get lots of mud and dung from the farm opposite us together with cow hair which they use to line their nests.

I hope my readers are fortunate enough to have House Martins nesting on your homes if not then please try to encourage them by the methods described in this article. If they already occupy nearby properties then you stand a good chance of a scouting bird, probably a male, spotting the potential of your dwelling and hopefully you will then have as much pleasure out of watching their antics as I have in my lifetime.

Suppliers of artificial nest-boxes for house martins in the UK are:- CJ Wildbird Foods Ltd, The Rea, Upton Magna, Shrewsbury. SY4 4UR Freephone order line 0800 731 2820 or online: www.birdfood.co.uk


Elfyn PughThis article has been written by Elfyn Pugh who runs a bird tour venture in mid-Wales called ‘Red Kite Safaris’. Visit www.redkitesafaris.co.uk.