We’re all eagerly awaiting the sight and sound of Spring. No matter where your home is in the United Kingdom, adults and children alike look to the skies for the dainty, bluish black bodies of the swallow. No other bird can conjure up the essence of childhood and springtime. The remarkable lifestyle of this small Hirundae is known to all. We rejoice in the return of this tiny traveller, come all the way from the tropics of Africa. Along with the bright yellow of daffodils and the creeping green of hedgerows the swallow heralds the start of warmer weather, plenitude and enjoyment.
For me the swallow and its close relative, the house martin both carry me back to sunny childhood days. April 19th was a date scrawled in jotters and the back of bird books. Later it would be pencilled onto the windowsill of our summerhouse. Each year the swallows seemed to trickle into our sky, and perch on our telephone wires on April 19th. They quickly got right down to business, fixing up old nests with water and mud from a regular puddle on the drive. Swallows took over the eaves of tool sheds, the dog kennel and the coal room. We had to leave doors open and adults had to duck as birds whizzed by their heads. Unlike some, we didn’t mind the mess that built under the little mud cup nests, we liked animals and were always happy to see the nest filled again. I remember shocked horror when I realised people actually prevent these intrepid travellers nesting after such an incredible journey.
The sound of swallows is perfection. The chatter of the birds as they line up side by side on a wire waving in the wind brings such enjoyment to me. They are the conversationalists of summer. The blackbird or song thrush may be music to the ears in early spring but the real sound of the year for me is awarded to the swallow.
The house martins came into focus for me later. A new house with a large open fronted barn gave hours of neck craning. All the way along the eave were little mud circles, maybe up to thirty nests. Some had small faces and gaping beaks peaking out, some had whole heads popping into the fresh air, space fast becoming a rare commodity. The busy parents flew over the hazy fields filled with neatly turned hay bails. Sometimes the harsh realities of life became apparent. Under the nests you’d find tiny pink bodies, or eggs that had fallen, never to hatch. This, among many other wildlife lessons, gave me an understanding that life is difficult, precious and rather fragile, but natural all the same.
These birds are of my childhood, they remind me that I’m a grown up now. When I do see them, I’m a little saddened, we lose something as we get older. Inadvertently, our sense of freedom and adventure dwindle. Our imaginations are much more limited and we gain responsibility. I’m also sad because these birds are dwindling too, they’re declining- especially the house martin and we don’t yet know why. We’re lucky to have 10 house martin nests on our barn now, each summer we welcome fewer birds back. Our future children may not have joy in the returning swallows, swifts, house and sand martins. Without those birds, my childhood would have been much duller, less special.
While we still have these birds, inspire the little people to look to the skies and await their return. Revert back to your childhood, lie in the grass and listen to their tittering talk. Children need connections with nature and the small, less obvious links may be the ones that make a lasting impression. A swallow is a small impression that stuck with me.