Posted 8th Apr 2013
Image courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Amy Lewis
These skilful fliers travel thousands of miles to reach the UK in search of a bountiful summer harvest
Elegant and graceful, the beautiful swallow is a welcome summer visitor in Britain - easily recognisable by its rust-coloured throat, pure white breast, glossy blue feathers and deeply forked tail. Their long, slender shape and curved wings allow the swallow to have maximum aerial manoeuvrability whilst their whiskered mouth increases their chance of catching prey.
Once believed to hibernate during winter months, they actually fly all the way from southern Africa to be with us during summer. The males arrive first to scout the best nesting sites where they then wait for the females. Arriving in April and staying until October, the swallow is welcomed as a sign of good luck, for many believe their presence brings fortune to the home or farm they nest on. Swallows and humans have always been very attached to each other. In the Middle Ages watchmen welcomed the first returning swallows by sounding their horns in presage of the approaching summer. It is a true sign of spring when the swallows return, nesting here until the cold winter sets in.
The swallow prefers to build its nest in the waterproof protection of buildings, often choosing to reside in an outbuilding, bridge or in the lea of overhanging roofs. They find their way into barns and cattle sheds through open doors and windows, mainly building their nests on a beam or ledge, though they can also build nest cup structures made of mud and straw.
Amy Lewis from The Wildlife Trusts explains: "Hundreds of pellets of wet mud are needed for this construction, and a good amount of spit too. Unlike most other birds, swallows will often re-use and improve old nests rather than start from scratch."
Swallows can often be spotted in open pasture or water where insects are in plentiful supply. They catch their food - mainly midges and flies - in flight, one of the main reasons they migrate to the UK in summer.
‘You may not think the UK a desirable summer destination when the whole world is your oyster, but our climate creates the perfect conditions for breeding millions of tiny winged morsels,' creating an abundance of food for the swallows, Amy explains. If swallows are flying low to hunt, it usually indicates the approach of bad weather. Otherwise they prefer the higher atmospheric layers. In rainy weather they also catch the flies which swarm around horses and cattle in stables and barns. A plentiful supply of food is essential for raising young swallows.
Read the rest of this feature on p.86 of the May/June 2013 issue...
By Natalie Mason