Farm Ireland

Monday 20 August 2018

At last, late swallows summon spring

And it’s a welcome return. Photo: Mike Langma
And it’s a welcome return. Photo: Mike Langma

Joe Kennedy

The message reflected a magic moment of relief for one rain-weary dairy farmer in West Cork. He had just seen his first swallows of the year - a sign that the pattern of months of gloom was at last changing.

Every year I hear from him when the birds arrive. On April 12, they were 10 days late. He texted: "Great to see them at last. After such a long winter and dismal, so-called spring, their arrival lifted the spirit."

Two hundred years ago, another Corkonian, a cleric named Rev FO Morris, wrote about "our swallows" returning - at a time when popular belief was that the birds hid beneath ponds and lakes during winter.

Morris pointed out that although the birds were "absent for a great part of the year, it is with us that they build and inhabit their dwellings and rear their young".

This was sensible writing about birds that had survived a horrendous journey from sub-Saharan Africa through sandstorms, tempests and hunters' arrows, crossing to Europe via the Straits of Gibraltar, and up the Atlantic coast to cross again to Erin's green pastures.

On the return from Africa, other bird species have been in the skies, especially the bigger ones such as kites, eagles, buzzards, storks and vultures, noted by enthusiastic birders at such vantage points as Punta Camarinal and Punta Carnero on either side of Tarita at the tip of Andalusia. These birds remain in mainland Europe, and are easily spotted - unlike swallows and other small birds which for safety stay high at night travelling in stages on their four-week journey.

The martin and swallow are 'God's bow and arrow' and are now filtering back in, back to nooks and crannies in farm buildings and house 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".

In days to come they will be insect chasing high in the sky and skimming landscape grass among grazing cattle. Many may build anew with mud and grass - but old nests are regularly refurbished (and from some the mummified remains of very late chicks are unceremoniously dumped).

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Before migration was fully understood, swallows were believed to live in a torpid state under water. Even Dr Samuel Johnson was emphatic.

He wrote: "Swallows do certainly sleep all winter; they 'conglobulate' together by flying round and round and then, all in a heap, throwing themselves under water."

Carl Nilsson Linnaeus, the 18th Century naturalist who gave Latin names to all wildlife, wavered for a time in this fallacy, and the playwright August Strindberg supported the theory into the 20th Century.

Fifty years before, the Kendal Mercury in Britain reported swallows "emerging from bubbles" from the lake at Grasmere! This plunging fantasy probably arose from seeing the birds dipping into ponds and pools refreshing themselves while insect chasing.

In the Sixth Century BC a Greek poet, Anacreon, wrote: "gentle swallow, now we know/every year dost come and go".

Aristotle went along with this but later changed his mind, abandoning the migration belief, in his History of Animals. Great minds...

Sunday Independent

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