I Follow the Swallow
Updated: Jul 21
As a grower, the return of swallows heralds the start of Spring. After the long, stormy Welsh winters, I welcome them with open arms. This year is the first time they've chosen to nest in my barn. Coincidentally 'my' swallows (Sion and Seren) chose to build their nest adjacent to where I keep my bike, which means I've 'checked-in' with them almost every day, keeping tabs on their progress.
They started making their nest in May after their long migration from Africa. Collecting soil, feathers and grass, fashioning these crude materials into a beautiful nest cup made predominately from soil and swallow spit, lined with feathers. At the end of May the nest was built and Seren was sitting on it for prolonged periods. During this time, we had to learn to cohabit. Their industrious nest building and frenzied eating resulted in several close shaves, where I was certain I would suffer a beak related injury. More often than not I felt a rush of wind pass my face as they gambolled past me, when I went to grab a fork or spade. I'm now able to tell the difference between them, as Sion has much longer 'tail streamers' than Seren. Incidentally it's often Sion who's the culprit!
June 16th was a momentous day, as the first 'brood' of five babies hatched, approximately 18 days after I first noticed Seren 'feathering her nest'. I was so excited, I rushed into my house to tell my partner and we both watched cautiously as five heads appeared over the horizon of the nest. My partner commented that 'they're all beak and fluff', it was true. Their beaks seemed huge in comparison to their tiny bodies. A few days on, I've now learnt to walk into the barn with my head bowed, whilst Sion and Seren dart in and out with a delicious array of insects for their youngsters including hoverflies, mayflies, aphids, flying ants and the occasional moth caterpillar. I'm amazed at the amount of food they're collecting and since learnt that a brood needs 6,000 flies a day to survive (Holden & Cleeves 2014)!
This is Sion and Seren's first brood and swallow pairs typically have two. After 18 to 23 days the five youngsters will start to fly and will be fed for a further week. Approximately 30 days after hatching they'll be left to fend for themselves and will disperse in various directions during July. Sion and Seren will then, 'fingers crossed', have another brood. When they're not 'keeping house', most of their time is spent 'on the wing'. They fly low to the ground catching their prey as they go, or snatch them from water. They feed wherever food is plentiful, you'll often see them around cattle, over manure heaps or along hedgerows where insects gather.
Unfortunately, my acquaintance and familiarity with S&S will be a short one. When September comes, they will move south and eventually leave Britain in early November. They will migrate by day, feed as they fly and roost at their known sites until they reach their destination - Africa.
Their migration in the Autumn lasts for about 6 weeks and includes flying across the Sahara desert! If they're lucky they could live up to 11 years and complete this epic journey up to 10 times during their lifetime. In recent years, there have been fluctuations in swallow populations. These appear to be related to the changes in Africa. In Britain and Ireland the loss of traditional nest sites, such as barns and food availability owing to agricultural intensification are the fluctuation factors and of concern for swallow populations of the future (Holden & Cleeves 2014).
To combat this, why not attract a Sion and Seren of your own? The RSPB have some excellent information on their website about attracting swallows to nest. They feed on an array of insects, so providing habitats for insects to breed will encourage not only swallows into your garden but a whole host of our other feathered friends. With this in mind, beat the 'lock-down blues' and build yourself a beautiful 'Bee B&B' or Bug Hotel, or check out our 'insect blog' for more information about providing habitats for insects.
We'd love to see whether you've had any encounters with swallows or built a bug home in your back garden. Please get in touch and tell us about your experiences. Make a comment on our blog or post on our facebook page, we'd be happy to hear from you...
Holden, P & Cleeves T, (2014), RSPB Handbook of British Birds, 4th Ed, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
RSPB,2020, Swallows Key Information, Attracting Swallows to Nest, Give Nature a Home in Your Garden https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/garden-activities/buildabeebandb/
Woodland Trust 2020, How to Build a Bug Hotel https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/09/how-to-build-a-bug-hotel/