DE­CLINE

Bird Watching (UK) - - April Id Challenge -

House Martin num­bers have de­creased; they are now on the Am­ber list, mean­ing there is ‘medium con­cern’ for their fu­ture sur­vival I went to visit a friend at her house in the Stour val­ley where no fewer than 24 House Mar­tins’ nests are lined up un­der the eaves (two false, some aban­doned). I sat in the cover of a hedge to watch the birds swoop­ing up and down into the gar­den, in and out of their nests, beau­ti­ful dark navy with flash of white belly and ivory throat. I love how Mar­tins fold their wings as they come to rest against the eaves. The forked tail, the solid build, the cheer­ful­ness: smart, neat birds flit­ting in and out to feed their young, dart­ing and stream­ing, div­ing through the tiny hole and dis­ap­pear­ing down into the long sock of the nest. Stay­ing awhile, then pok­ing out the head with wide lit­tle fat face, white-bibbed, be­fore shoot­ing out again like an ar­row. I watched them close up from a bay win­dow in­side one of the up­per rooms. How tiny they are, th­ese birds, so much smaller than they seem at dis­tances, or through lenses when rel­a­tive size is so dif­fi­cult to gauge. Some of the birds were young enough to have a par­tial gape, and what struck me was how in­di­vid­ual they all were: just like hu­mans, they have dis­tinc­tive faces. I could clearly see the feath­ered legs, which ap­par­ently are still a bit of an or­nitho­log­i­cal mys­tery: nor­mally, birds with feath­ered feet are as­so­ci­ated with cold con­di­tions, like Ptarmi­gan or Snowy Owls. Swifts also have feath­ered legs and feet and it’s thought this may be an adap­ta­tion to roost­ing high on the wing, keep­ing their feet warm. Is this true of House Mar­tins too? Or­nithol­o­gists of the world are ap­par­ently still ask­ing this ques­tion about a bird whose an­ces­tors have flown around planet Earth for any­thing up to 120,000 years. It pleases me that there is still much we do not know about birds. Rosamond Richard­son is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist who also writes for The Coun­try­man, and her Wait­ing for the Al­bino Dun­nock will be pub­lished in Spring 2017

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