The swallows are here – it must be spring!

PUBLISHED: 16:52 07 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

Swallow perched on overhead cable with blue sky in the background, hertfordshire

Swallow perched on overhead cable with blue sky in the background, hertfordshire

We know that winter is behind us when we catch that first glimpse of a swallow dashing overhead on a bright spring morning. A quick look up into the sky, a flash of that forked tail whizzing overhead, and immediately we can feel that life is on th...

We know that winter is behind us when we catch that first glimpse of a swallow dashing overhead on a bright spring morning. A quick look up into the sky, a flash of that forked tail whizzing overhead, and immediately we can feel that life is on the up again. Then, just as quickly, another whizzes by only inches above your head, displaying that bright red throat in all its glory. Spring is here, our swallows have returned, writes David Knight.

Swallows are one of our most recognisable and popular birds. They spend the majority of their time in flight, displaying fantastic agility and using their long, angled wings to fly low over open ground, catching small insects and invertebrates.

Being extremely fast through the air, it can sometimes be just as well to recognise this bird by its call rather than by identifying these physical features in mid-air.

The swallow makes a very distinctive twittery series of squeaky notes, often with a noticeable rattle in the middle. Listen out for it. The next time you see catch of glimpse of a bird whipping just inches above your head, this 'squeak' could help you make a more positive identification.

Swallows can be found in many different habitats, including farmland, grassland, reed beds and meadows. Anywhere where there is access to water and open pasture. They feed in flight, skimming low over open ground and plucking big, juicy flies and other insects from the air.

A mythological creature

The swallow's idiosyncratic behaviour and gorgeous colouring has made it a prominent character is many myths and legends. For example, somewhat worryingly, a swallow flying through the house is thought to be a sign of wicked fortunes, ranging from life-long illness to the possibility of murder! This is because many ancient mythologies believe that it is the swallow that bears tidings of displeasure from the gods. However, many legends view this bird as an inspiring creature. Being the national bird of Estonia, here it represents free blue sky and eternal happiness.

The long journey

One of the most amazing things about this bird is the incredible migration they undertake every year, and large reed beds can be great locations to look out for pre-migration roosts in late summer.

But when we see our first swallow whizzing around in early spring, it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend this unique journey that it's been on.

Our swallows spend the winter in southern Africa, travelling through France, across the Pyrenees, down Spain, through Morocco and then across the dreaded Sahara. Talk about an epic journey!

They put on very little weight before leaving us and find food as they travel, flying by day at the lowest altitudes possible. When crossing large expanses of desert such as the Sahara, they are dangerously susceptible to starvation, exhaustion and also the storms that are common in these areas. For a bird that is only 18cm long, it is inconceivable to think that during this period it will cover 200 miles a day and fly at up to 35mph.

For the strong birds that arrive at these wintering grounds, they have a well deserved feed in small flocks before joining up to form massive roosting flocks in the evening.

So the next time you see that swallow dashing above your head in spring, newly arrived and attempting to regain its strength, just think about the two great journeys it has had to undertake in order to be back in Warwickshire. I defy you not to have a new-found respect for this beautiful bird.

Family business

Once back among us, they nest on beams and other narrow supports under roofs, not under eaves like its close relative the house martin, but any place with an open door or window.

Females prefer to mate with the males with longest and most symmetrical tails, and any male without a partner has been known to kill the nestlings of a particular pair in order to break them up and afford him the chance to take over.

The nest is a small cup of fine grass and mud, neatly formed in a dark underhang and well protected from any possible predators.

The four or five eggs hatch within about 16 days and those chicks, having developed quickly from small tufts of helpless down into young, capable fliers, leave the nest about 20 days later.

There are currently about 725,000 breeding swallow territories in the UK but they are amber listed by the Government because of their adverse conservation status throughout Europe.

They are particularly vulnerable to changes in the weather, because they need rain for wet mud for their nests, and also to increase the insect population available to them. However, cold, wet weather can sometimes prevent them from feeding effectively and, on the other side of the coin, hot, dry weather can result in dehydration because pools run out and creates exhaustion after their migratory period. Therefore, it is clear that there is a very delicate balance to sustain in order to enhance their ability to survive any aspect of climate change.

Despite these conservation issues, swallows are still quite widespread during the spring and summer and it is possible to enjoy watching them at any site of open pasture or farmland, or by waterways as they swoop down for insects. Swallows truly are the magnificent symbol of springtime, so keep an eye and ear out for them.


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