Cheshire Wildlife Trust - help stop the decline of swallows in Cheshire
With numbers of these African travellers dropping every year, what can we do to secure the future of this most quintessential of birds? Swallow fan Richard Knowles flies off to find out
Birds on the box
Cheshire Wildlife Trust is aiming to stream live web cams from swallow nests at its Bickley Hall Farm HQ this summer, so visit their new website, www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk, to keep up to date.
Our feathered summer visitors bring bright colours and soulful sounds as they make use of what the UK has to offer each year, and none more so than the swallow. This small and elegant bird adds colour, song and a Red Arrows-like display every year, but in many areas of the country its numbers are declining. The good news is we can help stop this decline and indeed attract more swallows to spend summers near our homes.
The swallows that breed in Cheshire clock up about 12,000 miles each year during their migration to and from southern Africa, which makes the sight of them back at the place they were born and raised even more remarkable.
It takes about a month for them to reach the place they were born, spending about ten hours a day flying back to breed, or migrating south to avoid our winters. They even have an in-built ‘sat-nav’ which helps locate key geographical landmarks year after year.
Unfortunately, as we humans have developed the land, the locations and facilities that swallows need for a successful breeding season are slowly being eroded away – farm buildings being turned into houses mean fewer suitable nesting sites, grazing land being changed to arable land gives less opportunity for swallows to collect insects to feed their young.
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They feed on flying insects, which are especially plentiful in wetland areas and pastures, but fewer of these areas along with less accessible nesting places are mainly thought to be the main reasons why these summer visitors are declining.
Cheshire however, is a great location for swallows, with plenty of open countryside, farm buildings and many areas of small water sources in our ponds and mosslands. Indeed, it has been said the region could be the ‘pond capital’ of the UK.
As swallows do not go far from their nest to forage, nesting and feeding areas must always be close together. Dry weather in early summer may result in a lack of mud for building and repairing their nests, and effectively prevent them from nesting, or force them to move elsewhere.
The onset of drought conditions after two years of dry winters and summers poses a very real threat to much of Cheshire’s wildlife, but how and why should we help swallows spend summers with us in Cheshire?
Swallows are often seen with livestock and can consume huge numbers of insects that are a nuisance to cattle, sheep and horses, which could make them part of a managed strategy of pest control.
Mosquitoes and other similar small biting insects make up a large part of a swallows diet, so they can help humans, livestock and other wildlife suffer a little less each summer if they are breeding nearby.
As nesting is an issue with swallows, help from human friends is often well received. They prefer outbuildings, which provide dark ledges and nooks and crannies for nesting, as these are cosy in colder weather and cool when it is hot.
Swallows can enter a building through a very small hole and need very little light. Brightly lit nest sites are most at risk from predators.
To help them to nest in a garage or outhouse make a small opening under the garage or barn eaves, leave a window or door open and fix a nest platform where you would like them to nest, high in the building, out of the reach of cats.
Assisting with nest building is relatively simple and involves creating small puddles of water the birds can use to turn soil into mud and create a nest – a building technique employed by another summer visitor, the house martin and woodland resident the nuthatch, who uses mud to do a little exterior plasterwork at the nest hole. Artificial swallow nests are available commercially for just a few pounds.
Social media is also helping locate swallows as people are able to use sites such as Twitter, to let everyone know where the birds have been sighted. This is forming part of wider ‘chronology’ studies of how the natural world is adapting to a changing climate.
Traditionally swallows return in April with the final ones arriving by mid-May. The frantic breeding season means nest building, egg laying, fledging and even a second brood needs to be complete by September, before the 6,000 mile return trip to southern Africa.
Early-arriving swallows are either very keen to breed, or too early to feed, suggesting the old adage about a summer not quite being here with the sight of just one bird, is fairly apt.
A very warm March could be a sign of things to come, so more swallows seen so early in Spring may soon be the norm.
The potential of global warming means we may see them even earlier in the year and they could stay with us for longer too.
Whatever the future holds, with a little help from Cheshire residents swallows can enjoy summers in the county for years to come.
The little bird that helps light up our warm season will know that after flying across Africa, over the Sahara, through Spain, over the Pyrenees and across France, it can successfully raise a family right here in Cheshire.