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Mag­i­cal Crea­tures AN AP­PRE­CI­A­TION OF THE SWAL­LOW

The Simple Things - - FRESH | JUNE THINGS - Words: JAMIE WYVER

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.

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