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 Home>>in the Garden>>The House Martin

The House Martin  

It takes an amazing amount of strength and character to fly the long and treacherous route from south of the Sahara Desert in Africa to the British Isles and back again, however this is what the House Martin (Delichon urbica) accomplishes every summer throughout its life.

The house martin, which is part of the swallow family, is a familiar sight within many UK gardens. It can be recognised by the blue-black body, with contrasting bright white under parts. Its white feathered legs and toes and shorter, less forked tail distinguishes it from the swallow. Although you will probably not see the house martin on your bird table or feeding from the lawn, as they feed on aerial insects whilst in flight, it is quite likely that they may nest within the eaves of your roof or you will catch a glimpse of these beautiful flyers soaring through the skies. They are summer migrants, spending their winters in Africa, then making the long trek back to Britain and other areas of Europe where they spend their time feeding over wetlands, agricultural fields, and woodland boundaries, before returning to their nesting grounds. Eventually, when the insects hide away for winter, they will head back south in September or October, only to repeat the same journey the next year.

House martins hardly ever come to the ground, only when collecting nesting material and to drink will they touch down. Traditionally they nested on cliffs, using mud to make a comfortable and safe enclosure for their young. However since the 19th century they have extended their range by using buildings in urban areas, as their name suggests. Popular nesting sites are the under eaves of houses, bridges and churches and they still tend to use their traditional choice of material – mud, mixed with grass and feathers. They have taken advantage of the motorway bridges and seem not to be too put out by the thundering cars below. There have also been reports of nesting on ships, under the bows.


Two Martins at the nest
The breeding season runs from May to August, while the insect supply is still plentiful. They usually lay four to five eggs that are incubated by both the male and female for around 16 days. The white eggs then all hatch together and mother will look after them for a week while they cannot control their own body temperature, as they have no feathers. Both the mother and father feed them until they leave the nest at about 3 weeks. Infant mortality mainly depends on supply of food. If there is a period of bad weather and the insects are hard to find then the chicks will suffer. Nests are often returned to in following years, however usually not by the same birds. They are such secure and sturdy structures that building from scratch seems pointless. House martins are colonial nesters, with four or five nests occupying one area. Country colonies tend to be larger than those in the town, with up to a hundred nests. Males tend to return to the colonies they where breed from, though the females will usually settle further away.

Since the 1970s the British house martin population has decreased by about 40%. Though this species has no real predator, other factors are influencing their survival on British shores. They are particularly dependant on weather. Bad weather deters insects and therefore reduces food supply. Add to this the increased use of insecticides and pesticides which kill off insects and this can become a major problem. They also need wet weather to provide mud for nesting material. Pollution is also a problem. It has been observed that areas of high pollution are lacking in house martin colonies, and as our pollution levels rise our bird species will suffer.

There are certain things we can do to help the house martin within our gardens and local communities. Though we cannot supply their choice of food we can provide muddy ponds or patches of mud in the garden that will encourage the bird to use this material to build nests. You can also put up artificial house martin nests, which may not be used by the bird itself but will encourage them to nest nearby. The house martin is protected by law in the UK. The Wildlife and Countryside Act set up in 1981 protects them against intentional injury or capture and it makes illegal the damage of eggs, young or nests.

The grace and beauty of the house martin is something we should endeavour to protect and by giving that little helping hand in your garden you will help them to return year after year, gracing us with their playful antics and acrobatic flight.