Rescuing Swallows

by | 25 May, 2022 | Nature | 0 comments


Each year, I make a note of the day the Swallows arrive back to the barns near our house, and when they leave. This year, the first male arrived back earlier than usual, on the 31st March, and the majority left on the 5th September. But one pair stayed.

Curiosity piqued, I looked out for them each day. With his long tail streamers, it was often the male I noticed, rushing low over the fields or calling out in alarm as a bird of prey passed through. These alarm calls, which like many bird calls vary depending on the threat, have become an essential part of my summer. Because of the Swallows, I’ve seen Sparrowhawks, Jays, Magpies, Crows, Red Kites, Buzzards, Peregrines, Foxes and Hobbies. They have a distinct call for the latter, quite different for the sound they make for other birds of prey. (I’m sure I’ve heard them make this same call when the first Swifts arrive too, perhaps briefly mistaking their anchor-like silhouettes for Hobbies.)

After a while of watching the remaining pair of Swallows from a distance, on the 23rd September I decided to find out where their nest was. I had a rough idea, but checked the other barns just to be sure. In one, I found a Swallow’s nest on the floor, a sad pile of straw, broken mud globules and the odd tatty feather. I guessed it must have been the remaining pair’s original nest, its collapse (and the warm weather in September) encouraging them to lay another brood.

At the last barn, I waited for both the parents to be out of sight, then dashed in. A pile of fresh droppings close to the door let me know which nest was occupied. I went to get a stool so that I could peek inside, but even standing on that meant I couldn’t see into the nest as it was so high up. Instead, I used my phone camera to film what was in there before making a hasty retreat. When I watched my footage I was shocked. I expected to see fully grown chicks, but instead I was looking at four chicks that were only eleven or twelve days old. Unlike some birds, which fledge after twelve days, Swallow chicks take around twenty-three days to leave the nest. That meant this four wouldn’t fledge until October.

The next evening, I was preparing dinner when I heard both the parent’s calling in alarm. I dashed out, expecting to see a predator, but there was nothing there. Yet the alarm calls continued. As I reached the barn door I looked up and to my horror I couldn’t see their nest. Instead I found it smashed up, on the floor, with four Swallow chicks scattered around it.

Quickly, I grabbed a bucket and put the chicks inside. Remarkably, none of them seemed injured. I then ran to the house to get my partner, who suggested that we pop the chicks into another nest within the same barn (there are several) and leave them to it. But I wasn’t convinced that would work. I had recently read that some birds are so hardwired to their nest that moving their chicks just a few feet away means they’ll abandon them, and I wasn’t happy to take that risk.

However, due to a zealous little Wren who seemed set on commandeering every Swalllow nest he could back in early spring, I had made a Swalllow nest out of clay which we’d mounted in another barn so there’d be enough room for everyone once the Swallows returned. None of the Swallows used it (my craftsmanship wasn’t a patch on theirs) but it seemed like the perfect solution. We took it down and fitted it to the place were the Swallows nest had been, fixed some wire mesh beneath it so that it had extra support and then one by one, I gently placed each chick into it while gingerly balancing on a ladder. I looked each one over again before I did, and still couldn’t find any injuries. I then retreated to a secluded spot where I could watch to see if the parents would return. Thankfully, they did.

Weeks later, all four chicks fledged. One by one, they clumsily made their way out of the barn and into the Oak tree at the front of our house. Blessed with fair weather, for the next week and a half they foraged with their parents before heading back into the barn in the evenings to roost. On the 9th of October, as they were gaining in strength, a thick mist engulfed our house. I went out to take photographs from the surrounding fields. As I walked, I occasionally heard the Swallows calling to each other somewhere above; their cheerful calls making me think of mischievous pixies. Eventually the fog cleared. I returned home and looked for the Swallows, but there were none to be seen. Like the fog, they had vanished, leaving a brilliant blue sky in their wake.


There is a Swallow in the clay nest. I don’t, and won’t ever know if its the same female who raised the late brood last year, or if its one of her offspring. But I do know that she and her mate have added to the nest I made, positioning little balls of mud along any weak spots. This makes me giddily happy. I’m proud to have created the foundations for their mud adorned home, which they’ve accepted this time not out of necessity but out of choice, and I hope they and their family will keep using it for many years to come.