MYS­TERY OF THE

House Martin num­bers in Eng­land are de­clin­ing, but in North­ern Ire­land and

Bird Watching (UK) - - Species - WORDS: ROGER FICK­LING

HOUSE MARTIN

ATWO-YEAR MON­I­TOR­ING study record­ing the nest­ing ac­tiv­ity of House Martins hopes to un­der­stand why parts of the UK are see­ing a rapid de­cline in their num­bers. Sci­en­tists at The Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO) called on mem­bers of the pub­lic ear­lier this year to choose nest­ing sites to mon­i­tor and are col­lat­ing find­ings to pro­duce a pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mate for the species. House Martins are, of course, sum­mer vis­i­tors to the UK and build a circular nest un­der the eaves of houses and other buildings, us­ing, it is es­ti­mated, a thou­sand beakfuls of mud! It is ‘Am­ber-listed’ in the list of Birds of Con­ser­va­tion Con­cern. Af­ter we moved house, re­cently, it was House Martins above all oth­ers that I missed most from our for­mer lo­ca­tion. They used to re­turn to their nests un­der the eaves of our neigh­bour’s house, as they had been do­ing for the last seven years that I was mon­i­tor­ing them, and doubt­less for the 130 or so years be­fore that, since the house was built around 1875. The martins re­turned with amaz­ing reg­u­lar­ity, al­ways ar­riv­ing some time dur­ing the sec­ond week of April, and with unerring ac­cu­racy, hom­ing in on the same nest sites or at least the same nest­ing area. They are my favourite sum­mer vis­i­tors and their pleas­ant ‘chirrups’ as they darted across the azure air space above our gar­den was guar­an­teed to lift my spir­its. They al­ways seem to be cheer­ful – you can’t be down­cast when the martins are about. For sev­eral years, two or three pairs took up res­i­dence in nests, which had re­mained pretty well in­tact from year to year. One was tucked right up un­der the gable end of the south-fac­ing wall of the prop­erty, and I imag­ine this was the pent­house suite, the ‘des res’ of the group. An­other two were un­der the eaves run­ning along the eastern wall. This was not only a much colder place, but as the wall was lo­cated only some nine or 10 feet from our prop­erty, it made a di­rect ap­proach into the nest much more of a chal­lenge. The sum­mer be­fore we left, a pair set about restor­ing the very di­lap­i­dated re­mains of an old nest that was sit­u­ated at the north­ern cor­ner of this east flank wall, a much more ex­posed and even colder spot. I sus­pect that this was a late re­turn­ing pair or maybe first-time breed­ers who had to set­tle for a prop­erty lower down the hous­ing lad­der. Over the next few years, they would doubt­less rise grad­u­ally up the so­cial scale and even­tu­ally ac­quire a prop­erty in the prime lo­ca­tion. This pair spent sev­eral weeks col­lect­ing mud to re­build the struc­ture. Need­less to say they were later than the other pairs in lay­ing their eggs and the young fledged be­tween 18 and 25 Au­gust, still hawk­ing the skies above our house well into Septem­ber.

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