PUBLISHED: 15:07 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 15:07 30 September 2016
They’re back! The swallows are back! Flitting over the fields, twittering overhead, as if the winter never happened. And in truth, for them, it never did: for they flew south as winter lapped our shores and have returned with the first rays of spring warmth. If they could speak, we’d hear tales of Saharan nights, of exotic cousins – perhaps the greater striped swallow and the white-throated swallow of southern Africa – and of a foreign palate of tasty and colourful invertebrates!
Of course, this may feel foreign to us but to the swallow, Africa is home too. It would be all too easy (as I am apt to do) to assume the swallow is quintessentially an English bird and forget that it is also found in mainland Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. However, it seems wherever the swallows are, they are able to capture the hearts of those around them and make us feel, at least while they are with us, that they are ‘our’ swallows. Both Austrians and Estonians clearly feel the same way having both voted the swallow their national bird.
I am not exempt from these avian-induced emotions and looking back through my field notebooks my first records of swallows are invariably marked with an exclamation mark. This year, on 3rd April, as the first five swallows suddenly appeared in the sky above me, I added a smiley face along with the exclamation marks! It is always a moment of joy and a sense that all is well with the world once more.
Swallows have been called the ‘birds of freedom’ from their Hebrew name delor meaning ‘free-flowing’, ‘release’ and ‘liberty’. For me these intercontinental travellers certainly bring a sense of a carefree world of graceful flight with every swoop and sweep a relished moment, free from the attachments of place and purpose. Encountering them at this time of year is a moment to stop and breathe and enjoy the return of colour: the greening landscape all around, the emerging flowers and butterflies and of course, the swallow’s own glossy blue back, red throat and white breast.
The best place to see swallows at this time of year is wherever there is open water – the lake in Verulamium Park or the many gravel pits around St Albans. This is where the insect life is most abundant but many swallows will return straight to where they nested last year and these tend to be more rural haunts that combine barns (they are after all officially called barn swallows), and open fields with water not too far away, where mud can be collected for nest-building.
Sadly, with the increasing development in and around St Albans and beyond these places have become fewer and farther between and unsurprisingly the swallow has experienced a considerable population decline, not just in the UK but across Europe too. The swallows are back this year but will their favourite nest sites still be there?
On a recent visit to Switzerland, I was very impressed by the way in which the local population of swallows and martins were accommodated in the town. A state-of-the-art residential development that would perhaps normally encourage the birds to move on had instead incorporated a purpose-built ‘Swallow House’ high on a pole as a central feature in the communal area. Flocks of swallows and martins twittered in and out making it very clear that this was indeed an acceptable solution to modern living. I wonder if we too could build with these birds in mind so that we can continue to enjoy their return to our lives in spring?
Somewhere safe, I have kept an old envelope with a note on the back, handwritten in ink: a date in early April 1978 and the simple words, “swallow returns.” Written by the gardener of the family home we still live in, the swallows, like the gardener, have long gone but the memory of them returning year upon year stays with me and perhaps explains my particular excitement on seeing them for the first time again each spring. Now, they’re back again so look out for them and wonder afresh at these tiny world travellers!