The house martins in my village have been very busy over the last few weeks building their nests just under the eves of houses
This is a labour intensive process and takes a couple of weeks to complete. I have been taking a keen interest in their work and in trying to understand and learn about their daily lives.
At first light they take to the skies flying by the windows of frazzled students and cows on there way to be milked. They arrive from Africa a few weeks after the swallows and are usually gone before them. Even though they use the same nesting materials and have similar diets the two species don’t really compete. This is because they have their own separate ecological niche.
Swallows build their nests indoors in sheds and outhouses and hunt high for insects. House martins build outdoors and skin the roof tops when searching for food.
A good supply of mud is essential and if the weather is very dry or cold this precious material can be in short supply. On my way down from school I passed by my neighbour’s garden. They had recently had it roughly leveled by a digger and a small muddy puddle had formed in the middle. Three or four martins were gathering up mud and flying back towards their nests. They role the mud into little balls and glue them together to form their nest.
Masters of their trade
When the martins have gone I carry out a little experiment. I try to form a ball of mud between my fingers. I soon release that like all wet trades it is not as easy as it looks. If the mud is too soft it does not form the correct shape and if it is too hard it crumbles in your hand. Young birds must go through a long process of trial and error before they figure out the best technique and consistency
Unfortunately when the sun came out the water disappeared and the earth was baked hard. Like all construction projects a continuous supply of building materials is essential to keep everything on track. A few hours later they had found a better area.
Cows feeding in a nearby field had churned up the ground and nest building could recommence.
Later on I got the kids involved in a hands on nature project. We wet an area of the lawn and the children run through it in their bare feet creating a valuable resource for birds but a mountain of washing for later on.
A small slit is left at the top of the nest and if insects are in good supply two broods can be raised during the breeding season. The young are fledged after three weeks and I presume that like swallow chicks they make their own way back to the heart of Africa.
An ancient journey
Some people do complain about the mess they make to the walls of their homes but the journey of the house martin is an anciet one, spanning thousands of miles and many generations to arrive in our towns and cities. Mud is an ancient build material and is still widely used in the cradle of civilization and perhaps we got the idea by observing the skills in the natural world.
The heat is stifling and I can hear the rumble of tractors through the open bedroom window. They are cutting silage and this will release hundreds of insects into the air. Tomorrow the fields will be full of hungry birds and eager birdwatchers and I am sure the house martins will be there as well.
If anyone has a house martin nesting on their home they might let me know.
For more info:
Albert Nolan is an environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast from Tipperary town
He is involved in the tidy towns initiative there and also gives walks and talks to local schools. His main interests are in urban wildlife and especially moths. You can contact Albert with any wildlife related queries or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or 089 4230502.