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Magical Creatures AN APPRECIATION OF THE SWALLOW
Joyful twittering overhead announces the arrival of the swallow, a bird that always brings happiness. When we see a swallow we think of long, warm summer days, and picnics in flowery meadows. These fairly accurate feathered forecasters can also give us a hint of imminent weather: “when swallows fly high, it’ll be dry.” There’s truth in the saying as, on warm, clear days, insects will rise high into the atmosphere and the hungry swallows will follow. On cool, damp days, swallows need to swoop low to catch their prey as it shelters nearer to the ground.
But how do you know if the bird snatching insects from the air above is a swallow, a swift or a martin? Swallows are dark blue birds with white bellies and red faces, and the males have long, pointed tail ‘streamers’. They lack the white rump of the house martin, and the long, dark, curved wings of the swift. Swallows like to build their mud and straw nests in shaded nooks and crannies. Yet just a few weeks after hatching, a healthy family of four or five swallow nestlings will be outgrowing their home. Once the young have flown the nest, a pair often starts all over again, laying a second clutch.
Once, it was thought that these birds spent the winter sleeping deep in mud, but we now know that they complete an incredible round trip of around 20,000km each year. Their journey takes them across the Sahara desert, all the way to South Africa. Perhaps because of their close association with people, their apparently cheerful nature and their admirable long distance travels, there are many myths and stories about swallows.
Stones carried by the swallows to their nests were believed to have healing powers, whereas eating the birds was supposed to cure epilepsy and stammering. It’s meant to be good luck if you have swallows nesting on your house. There’s some truth in that, as they’ll help cut down the number of biting insects that trouble you in your garden.
My favourite swallow story of all is the tale of the selfless bird who helps a caring statue bring hope to people in Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. The swallow in this 1888 children’s book plucks jewels from the Happy Prince’s monument and flies them to citizens in need, sacrificing himself because he misses his chance to migrate. There’s a happy ending though, as an angel seeking the ‘two most precious things of the city’ spirits both swallow and statue away to live in God’s ‘garden of paradise’.
Compared to some other summer migrants, such as swifts and turtle doves, swallows are doing well, and are adapting to changes in our climate. Although one swallow may not make a summer, these plucky little travellers really are the heralds of good times and better weather to come. Wildlife enthusiast and conservationist Jamie Wyver works at the RSPB. Find out more at rspb.org.uk.