Yesterday at Ty Cerrig we celebrated the return of the House martins. Not the reforming of Hull’s finest indie band, but the arrival of the little blue-backed, white-fronted birds that live in our eaves from spring to late summer.
The first sign was a darting loop of blue in the sky above the house not long after dawn. After watching for about fifteen minutes I had observed four birds making long, repeated ellipses of flight from behind the house and out over our garden, hungrily hoovering up flies and spiders from the air to fill stomachs empty after a long journey from their winter holiday homes in Africa.
This will probably continue for a day or so before they start taking a serious interest in the house again. Comfortingly, this seems to have been the pattern for many a decade – my 1947 edition of Our Bird Book describes a similar ritual at author, Sidney Rogerson’s, home: “The little birds will fly up to the eaves, hang on there somehow by their claws, and hold excited conversations. Mr Housemartin is asking Mrs Housemartin what she thinks of this place for a nest. What she answers we can only guess, for in a day or two we can watch the two of them swooping down on to the mud round the pond or in the road, stuffing in mouthfuls of it, and they flying back to spit these muddy mouthfuls on to our house.”
The nest itself is a marvel, an inverted mud igloo glued under the slope roofs, whose tiny entrance hole will hopefully be full of hungry little beaks in a few weeks time. The big change over the years is when the first House martins return. It was 6 April when I first spotted this year’s flock, but forty years ago my ‘Field Guide to British Birds’ advised that House martins don’t arrive until May.
This cherished book, lovingly inscribed to me in the shaky hand of my Grandma’s later years, also reveals that House martins will rear two to three broods of chicks each year and “sometimes the young birds from an earlier brood help feed the later ones”. That does chime with our experience last year, as there were sometimes a confusing number of adult birds darting to and from the nest.
I love House martins and it is a joy to see them back, but they do bring a bit of baggage with them. First, the process of nest building is going to leave a pile of mud at the base of our walls, because it is hard for little beaks to make it all stick where it is wanted.
Secondly, they can be noisy neighbours. As Our Bird Book describes, from the moment they arrive until they fly away again: “there’s a continual whispering and chattering. Even if we wake in the night and ask “what’s the time?” we seem to wake them too, for that delicious, eager whispering and chattering begins at once.”
Today I am going to try an experiment and see what our House martins make of The Housemartins. Me and the Farmer feels like the right song and, obviously, every blog ought to have a soundtrack. However, if you fancy something more unusual, check out Kathy Hinde’s Tweet of the Day on BBC Sounds. Hindes is an audio-visual artist and watching House martins “land and take off from telegraphy wires..[she] was struck by how they looked like musical notes”. Naturally, she decided to create a sculpture whereby the House martins’ flight would trigger keys to be depressed on an old piano. I doubt that the birds themselves would want to take ownership of the resulting cacophony, but it is unusual enough to be worth a listen for two minutes.