Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

A house martin. Photograph: Simon Deans, www.british-garden-birds

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Eleven years ago, when we first moved into this house, by July we would be getting woken at 4am each morning by the chattering of dozens of swallows.

Their garbled song was like a tape running backwards. We see a few passing now overhead, but none stop for long.

The house martins still visit though, wee black and white birds, distinguished from swallows in flight by their shorter, blunt tails.

The martins usually arrive with the warm air, that also ensures their diet of flying insects have emerged. We did see a few zipping briefly across the sky in May, but it only opened with more wind and rain, and seemed to wash them away again.

Pairs will normally build nests in the east and west gables of our roof. Once cliff dwellers, they have adapted: their name comes from the habit now of nesting on houses.

By the middle of June however, thanks to the late arrival of spring and summer, I had given up on even that happening.

A small part of me was relieved they hadn’t used the west gable, as the nests there frequently collapse. These little architects use mud to build. But, under the pressure of the prevailing weather and the weight of almost fledged chicks, the little feather-lined domes often fall to the grass below.

This time last year I had already attempted to rescue the first of two lots of chicks. With most young birds, if they appear unharmed they should be left where they are: the parents will find them.

In this situation though, I read that the young house martins need a head of air to be able to take their maiden flight. Their parents are also unlikely to come to the ground to feed. I was given the advice that these black and grey bundles of feathery fluff should be returned to the nest – except in this case their nest was no more.

I tried them at the top of the slide, on windowsills – anything to keep them out of reach of the cat and the pine marten, and to raise them closer to their parents. The chicks would still be there each morning, shivering and silent with what looked like fear, and no sign of attention from the older birds.

In the end, I put them in a tiny cardboard box along with the fallen nest. Using masking tape, I fixed it to the outside of the upstairs window, as close as I could get it to the original location. This attempt was successful. Rehomed, the mother and father heard their calls, continuing to feed the young birds until they were able to fledge.

At the other end of the house, the nest at the east gable was still whole at the end of last winter. It would only have needed a little fixing up to be ready for a new brood in the summer. All the same, this year it has no occupants.

Instead, one pair has finally made a stand again in the west. Just one unreliable, late nest. There are no chicks to be heard yet, but there is still time for one or two clutches before the martins begin their migration back south. I’ve got my cardboard box and masking tape at the ready.