Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

Swallow. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos

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There used to be so many swallows around our house that their 4am alarm call was the bane of my life.

This summer there were none.  We did have two nests of house martins, who finally gathered on the power lines strung across the brae below our house before disappearing to the south a few weeks ago.  So when a wee bird with a white breast and black back appeared on the same lines this week I didn’t immediately identify it.

Its yellow throat threw me.  The attention that I give to birds has increased as the swallow populations have decreased, so I was not familiar enough to know that it was a juvenile swallow.  As well as the lack of the more familiar burnished red of the adult throat, the bird’s trademark forking tail feathers had still not developed.

Those forked tails, when they do develop, have been attributed to a natural selection advantage, increasing the birds’ manoeuvrability and flight performance.  However, those advantages are proving to be insufficient in our changing world.  Swallow populations are declining across the UK.

One reason proposed for this is a decline in insect populations due to changes in farming practices.  The RSPB also reports that ‘adverse climatic conditions in Europe may be having a detrimental effect.  Cold springs with late frosts can cause problems for swallows, as do exceptionally hot and dry summers’.

The late frosts this year have affected a great deal of wildlife: frost-killed flowers mean fewer rowan berries now for the fieldfares.  However, judging from the fly papers I grudgingly decorated our house with, it seemed to be a good year for insects in Lochaber at least.

The young swallow looked like it had had a healthy enough start in life, but I wonder if this late brood bird will be up for the 200 miles a day swallows typically cover on their flight through France, Spain, and across the Sahara to South Africa.

Swallows’ exceptional flying skills allow them to feed as they travel.  Even with this ability it was always a challenging journey, resulting in the loss of many birds due to starvation and exhaustion – and it seems to have been made more difficult in recent years.  If these trends continue, those birds that do return to us next year are likely to be in poorer condition and to lay fewer eggs.

This wee one was joined on the line by four more swallows, clearly identifiable as their tail streamers shone blue-black in the low sun.  They preened for a while; their outermost feathers angled knife-like in the air as their heads buried into the white feathers below.  Yellow-throat was eventually noised up by a chaffinch and jinked away into the birchwood.  I lost sight of the bird in the trees’ circling yellow leaves.

If seeing the first swallow of the year is considered a good omen, what does it mean to see the last?