Tipperary's delightful swallows a sign that Summer 2017 has arrived

Albert Nolan


Albert Nolan



My niece recently won a competition for a free family photo.
This did not include men (or so we were told) and only the ladies would grace the studio on the chosen day. Like so many things we do in our lives, she had no recollection of entering the competition, but it was a rare opportunity to get all family together. My daughter is the only girl on my side of the family, and she needed to be suitably attired for the event. Of course this important task was taken over by my mam and sister, and with the benefit of experience, I kept my mouth closed and did as I was told.
On a quiet Sunday morning we found ourselves waiting patiently in my mam's apartment while hair was done and new clothes tried on.
After a few minutes a young woman emerged, and the resemblance to her late mam was for a few moments quite upsetting. Parental pride was mixed with an awareness that she is growing up too fast, and any adult involved in raising kids will at some stage go through these mixed emotions.
As we walked to the car a slight twittering caught my attention, and as I looked up I saw a swallow on the electricity wire. For a few seconds I was too excited to speak, but managed to blurt out to my mam that the swallows had arrived. She followed the line of my fingers and as we watched another swallow arrived.
For those of us who watch the rhythms of the seasons, the swallow is a welcome reinsurance that while family life changes, nature can anchor us from year to year. My mam was delighted with this simple sight and enjoyed their antics for the rest of the day.
They nest each year in the boiler house and are well used to the hustle and bustle of the busy restaurant and bar. On hot summer days as guests enjoy their drinks, they work from dawn to dusk to raise their chicks. Occasionally they pause for a quick song, before returning to their hunt for winged insects.
The males arrive first followed by the females. Even after their long journey from Africa they don’t spend long resting as like any foreign traveller time is short. Their itinerary is more vital than most as by the end of their trip they will have hopefully raised a family.
Mud and straw are an ancient building material, and some modern eco-friendly houses have realised the potential of this material. In Africa where the swallows spend winter, mud is still a plentiful and warm building material. The birds gather mud in their beaks, shape it into little pellets and use their silva to stick it to the rafters of buildings.
Cow sheds with their accompanying insects must be a particular prized piece of real-estate. Both the male and female take part in the building of the nest, with four to five glossy white eggs laid. They are covered in light flecks ranging in colour from brown to grey. The female does most of the incubation, and a little after two weeks the chicks hatch. The first brood are ready for the road after just a month, and if the summer is good and food plentiful, the parents may raise another brood.
Research has shown that females like to mate with males who have the most symmetrical tails as this is an indication of health. Some studies in the human world also came up with a similar conclusion.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of their story is that the same pair of swallows can return to the same shed each year. Like many beliefs around birds, science has help prove this long believed tradition. Ringed swallows do return to the place of their birth, but in many cases this is their offspring as adults rarely live beyond three years of age.
Their transcontinental journeys take their toll, and they can also suffer from prolonged drought in Africa. This causes their population to drop, and conservation of swallows takes work on both continents.
In our own communities, gardens and farms can increase the areas of wildflowers. These will attract insects, and provide food for swallows and many other species of birds. Also while we need to be security conscious, a small gap left above a shed door will allow swallows in and keep unwanted guests out. As always try and reduce the use of insecticides and herbicides, alternatively using mulches or hoes.
A great game for children is to bring them to the park or garden and ask them to find a spot where there feet can cover seven daisies. Summer is here if they can do this and they can get plenty of exercise running around. The daisy and the swallow are both part of the long warm evenings.
The next day after the photo shoot, I got a call from a neighbour. He only calls once or twice a year but it’s worth the wait as it means a good wildlife story. He had seen the swallow flying above his house on April 2nd, recording their arrival and departure for many years. But this time they are a week early to his delight.
If you find yourself with a moment to spare look towards the skies and enjoy the herald of summer.