Now the skies are giddy with summer birds wheeling about. The return of swallows, swifts and martins each year is something naturalists long for, and then can’t stop talking about when they’ve seen their first — even when no one else cares. It’s not just that these birds only turn up when the seasons really have gone from dreary to warm and exciting, but also that all of them have just made an extraordinarily long journey to Britain from Africa. They come here to breed, returning to the same sites annually.
Swifts are much larger and darker than the others, with almost entirely black-brown bodies, save a lighter patch at the throat which is generally impossible to see when they’re in the air. And they’re almost always in the air. They feed, breed and even sleep on the wing. The only time they land is to nest.
Swallows have smaller bodies, with navy upper parts, a white underside and a striking red throat and head. Their tails are formed into long, thin streamers. They have a smart and fast flight, their wings beating quickly and in a clipped fashion. Often you will see them flying low over water to catch a drink on the wing before zooming back up into the sky. You are more likely to see them in outer London, particularly in areas where there are stables for them to nest.
A close relative that’s also declining in numbers in the centre of our city is the House Martin. They’re on the amber list for conservation, meaning their population is a cause for concern. Though they have long lived with humans, these birds are finding some of our modern ways of life tougher to deal with, not least because some of the unforgivably grumpy among us dislike their nests so much that they put plastic guards over their eaves to stop them pitching up. This is very strange behaviour when the birds do no harm at all, and to most of us they are a cause for real joy because summer is here and these migratory miracles are on the wing.
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and author of The Natural Health Service