Swallows home to 'perfect eaves'
There is a certain uplifting of the spirit at the sight of returning swallows.
It means they have once again survived the horrendous journey from sub-Saharan Africa through dust, tempest and predation to cross to Europe - via the Straits of Gibraltar - for the final stretch up the Atlantic coast for home. On March 30, two weeks ahead of local reckoning, a fluttering pair were back in the rolling countryside of west Cork, zooming about a farmstead, where sparrows live in rafters above contented cows. Not too far off, there was a colony of martins holed up in the soft face of an old quarry.
"The martin and the swallow, God Almighty's bow and arrow", is an old saying. Another is that "one swallow does not make a summer" (Cervantes: "Una golondrina no pace verano"). Followers are expected to seek nooks in outhouses and porches, like the swallows in The Wind in the Willows," Kenneth Grahame's seminal work, who chatter about their happy return to the "house of the perfect eaves". This is the stamp of summer days to come - insect-chasing in the sky and landscape grass-topping among grazing cattle. Though these arrivals may build anew, old nests are regularly refurbished: one was recorded in England in continuous use for more than 40 years.
On the return from Africa other bird species have been in the skies, especially the bigger ones such as kites, buzzards, eagles, vultures and storks, sighted by birders at vantage points such as Punta Camarinal and Punta Carnero on either side of Tarifa at the tip of Andalusia in Spain. These birds travel in groups of varying numbers during daylight and are easily spotted unlike the smaller ones which stay high in the sky in stages on their four-week journey.
I have mentioned in the past the 19th century Cork naturalist Rev F O Morris who wrote about "our swallows" and that it was wrong to consider them "visitants". Although absent for the greater part of the year "it is with us that they build and inhabit their dwellings and rear their young". They were "visitants" to other countries, he wrote.
Before migration was fully understood there used be a belief that the birds overwintered in mud at the bottom of lakes, remaining in a torpid state until spring. Even Dr Samuel Johnson was emphatic: "Swallows do certainly sleep all winter. They conglobulate together by flying round and round and then, all in a heap, throwing themselves under water."
He was not alone. The great Carl Nilsson Linnaeus (1707-1778), the naturalist who, in Latin, named all wild creatures, wavered for a time, and even in 1907 the playwright August Strindberg was a supporter of the underwater theory. Fifty years before, the Kendal Mercury in England reported birds "emerging from bubbles" from Grasmere! All such plunging fantasy was probably triggered by seeing the birds dipping into ponds to refresh themselves and chasing flies in evening frenzies. In the sixth century BC, a Greek poet, Anacreon, had written "gentle swallow, now we know, every year dost come and go…" And let us welcome them and not knock down their nests as once used to happen in the past. Failte romhat gach ein.