The sight of a house martin to-ing and fro-ing from a field to its nest high in the eaves of a house, took me back more years than I care to remember for it was house martins that converted me into an avid bird watcher.
At the time, Neville Chamberlain had just announced that this country was at war with Germany. My parents, having lived through the first World War – indeed my father had been a hero of that great conflagration – took immediate action and I was dispatched from my suburban home to a country cottage which, quite rightly, they imagined would be safe from Hitler’s bombers.
Along with a friend and his young cousin, we were whipped away from what was perceived to be a likely target for the bombers. At the age of seven, my outlook on life was about to be transformed for immediately outside my new bedroom window, almost within touching distance, was a plethora of house martin nests – a veritable terrace of them. I had already developed an interest in wild birds, albeit that the dominant ones in our suburban garden were sparrows and starlings. An aunt, who had been a ‘Nature Study’ teacher – there were such posts in those days – ensured that I was always aware of the natural world. As for the new discovery of house martins, well, by comparison, these were exotic birds and I was to spend hours during the ensuing weeks with my eyes riveted on those nests and their occupants.
It was September and the martins were exceedingly busy attending to the needs of the final brood of youngsters of the year – perhaps a third brood of that season. Therefore, there was any amount of coming and going and I was thrilled when at last those youngsters began to emerge and line up on the adjacent overhead wires to be fed. Then came the shock as one morning, there were suddenly no martins. The birds had flown, setting out on their perilous journey to Africa and I was inconsolable! The concept of bird migration was unknown to me and it was only after a protracted lecture from our host that I began to have a glimmer of understanding that, come next spring, they would return.
There were swallows too. They had nested in an outbuilding and although they were equally fascinating, at least when it came to the martins, I had a grandstand view of all the action. I was utterly hooked. Even now, the sight of both swallows and martins gladdens my heart like no other birds do. I have always admired the sheer verve and athleticism of both birds as they zip through the air picking off the insects upon which they and their young rely for food. Indeed, as I watched my lone martin the other day, I noted that it was joined by a lone swallow, both hunting over the same field and gathering flying insects for their respective young.
I have to admit that the swallow generally outflew the martin with its greater vitality but the white rump of the martin bobbing athletically along somehow demonstrated that it too is no slouch as it pursues those insects. I mused on recent reports of a decline in insects across Europe that, as a whole, has probably hit both species especially hard and I am aware that house martin numbers are also in quite serious decline. Indeed, as I watched this lone bird repeatedly return to its nest to offload its consignment of insects for its growing young, I noted that alongside its single nest were the unoccupied ruins of several others.
I wondered if house sparrows had been a problem here, for they are apt to take over martin nests before the martins return on their spring migration. The irony is, that whilst house martins have declined sufficiently to cause them to be declared as amber-risked in the lists of declining birds, so also have house sparrows now appeared on that list. Only, the decline in sparrow numbers has been so serious, that they are regarded as red endangered so their plight is allegedly worse. However, the fact is that, as I’ve said before, hereabouts sparrows are so numerous as to dominate my bird-table. Perhaps the biggest decline has been in towns and cities? Perhaps they’ve all moved to the country?
Curiously, these days both birds, sharing the prefix ‘house’, are inevitably very closely associated with humans and human-made structures. House martins, it is thought, originally nested on cliffs building their nests below overhanging cliff tops but since the nineteenth century in particular, have instead chosen largely to nest on buildings. This has taken many of them to urban areas where of course there are plenty of buildings to choose from. House sparrows have always shared their lives with humans and world-wide, wherever there are people, there are inevitably sparrows. Not surprisingly, house sparrows also nest largely on buildings. Indeed, one of the reasons advanced for their decline is because of changes in building styles that has provided them with fewer nesting opportunities.
Another factor in the reduction in the number of house martins is that they need moisture in order to collect the mud they use to build their nests and spells of dry weather when they are building can spell disaster. Ironically, one of the other reasons given for the decline in house martins is the increasing number of former farm buildings which have now been converted into dwellings. Apparently, the popular barn conversion has also played its part in the martin’s decline. However, climate change may also be a major factor. The migratory flight of house martins – house sparrows of course, don’t go anywhere – is hazardous in the extreme. They have to cross mountain ranges, oceans and deserts on their way to and from central Africa. And because the weather, as the result of global warming, is becoming increasingly erratic and stormy, it is suspected that more martins are being caught out. The old beliefs that swallows hibernated either at the bottom of lakes or under the sea was apparently vindicated when fishermen brought great rafts of dead swallows to the surface in their nets.
Clearly these were swallows which had been overcome by hostile weather conditions and had been forced to ditch in the sea and therefore inevitably perish. These days, long distance migratory birds like swallows and house martins are presumably even more at risk of falling foul of hostile weather conditions and consequently are thus more likely to perish en-route.
The frequent pleas to farmers and landowners to plant more and more wild flowers in order to encourage declining populations of pollinators, should be pursued with growing enthusiasm. We need to increase not decrease the population of these vital elements in Nature’s scheme of things. Such an approach would also help the likes of swallows and martins by increasing insect populations. Perhaps also we should all curtail the use of pesticides whether we are farmers or gardeners. Our insects are the staple diet of many of our birds as well as the vital pollinators upon which the whole of Nature is so dependent. We need to look after our environment with greater care. The war we constantly wage against those elements in natural life that we don’t like, such as insects and weeds, is harming our environment irreparably. And if you think about it, it is us who are at the end of the line!