Thursday, 1 October 2009

House martins at home

I fear that the house martin flock has slipped away, unseen, whilst my attention was elsewhere. I haven’t seen them for days and now, as I anxiously scan the skies for them, there is only a gaping hole in the ether, where hundreds of birds once were. With their departure, I feel as though a chapter of my life has come to an end. When I moved to my new house, a few months ago, lines of house martins screamed a welcome from the telephone wires and over the past few months I have grown to know and become fond of my new, feathered neighbours. I have never shared my home with house martins before, but this particular Devon village seems to support a huge number of them. I decide that perhaps it is down to the mud. Here, rivers and streams, shouldered by clayey banks the colour of burnt ochre, shred the landscape, providing nesting material to these resourceful builders. 
The birds and I co-existed peacefully throughout the summer. As I hung clothes out to dry, they attended their nests amongst the gutters.  Whilst I worked at my desk, they entertained me by performing aerial acrobatics, like a squadron of red arrows outside my window. I paused in my gardening to watch the young poke their heads from the nest and beg for food. I marvelled as they clung to vertical walls, finding footholds amongst the render. I worried for them when it was cold and wet, wondering whether they would catch enough insects to feed their chicks. I tried in vain, again and again, to capture their image on my camera, but they were always too quick, too far away, too small. And when there was a rare day of sunshine, I lay on the crunchy lawn and squinted into the sun, hypnotised by their wheeling and diving, as they towered for insects, high above. 

And now, I feel, inexplicably, that I have let them down, by not being there to see them off on their long-haul flight to Africa. I wonder how they will find the way? Probably by a mixture of visual and olfactory cues, as well as sun, magnetic and star compasses, although that answer hardly explains the phenomenon adequately. There is still so much that we don’t know about these most familiar of birds. Almost incredibly, we still know hardly anything about where they overwinter in Africa and what they do when they get there. Of 250 000 house martins ringed in Britain and Ireland, only 1, singular bird has ever been recovered from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Over the past eight years, I have moved house eight times, but at last I feel settled. Perhaps rather ironically, as house martins are the ultimate nomads, I will forever associate the presence of these birds with the feeling of being at home. Next spring, I will have my fingers crossed for good weather and keep my eye on the sky, hoping for the house martins’ safe return.

Now you do it

The BTO runs a house martin survey. Find out more and join in here

There are a few simple things that can be done to encourage house martins to nest near you: 

Never disturb house martin nests. If you leave them where they have been built, they are likely to be reused the following year, or attract house martins to build their own nests nearby.

Create a pond with muddy banks, or simply a muddy puddle, so that they have something to build their nests from. 

There is some evidence that putting up artificial nests helps to attract house martins. They can be bought in several different places, for example from the RSPB shop

Conservation Status

In the British Isles, house martins have declined by 38% since 1970. They are listed on the Amber list of medium conservation concern.

All nesting birds are legally protected, so it is illegal to damage or destroy the eggs or young, or destroy or damage a nest whilst it is being used.


  1. Thanks for another great read, is that video recent? as you seem to be experiencing different weather from me! its cold calm and crisp here and we haven't seen rain for over 3 weeks....I know we moan about the rain but its not good for next year's Moths if its too dry :(

  2. we have had a pair of house martins nesting on the house ridge for several years in 2007 & 2008 the nest blew down in a storm but survived this year and they flew the nest about 3 weeks ago

  3. I really like the video. Hope they come back. Winter does seem deathly but they'll come back.


  4. Last Sunday 4th Oct., me and a few friends were walking in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire and we saw several House Martins swooping around the farm buildings catching the insects that were about in the pleasant warm sunshine. Since then we have had two frosty mornings so I expect they have now moved south.

  5. Thank you for the post, I sympathise with you. I miss them all winter, and I miss swifts too! I am less lucky and the only couple on House Martin nests I knew of in Hull were not used this year.

  6. Woodpecker without a Headache1 November 2009 at 15:12

    The house next door had their first nesting of House Martins and we were able to enjoy them breeding at least two broods as normal. But we were rather worried when it was obvious that yet another clutch were being fed very late, the swallows had already left and we were expecting the House Martins to go any day as well.Four little fledglings finally took to the air on the 6th October and two days later later they were all gone. Hopefully they will feed and learn on their journey.