One of the birds which visits the UK during the summer is the house martin. They’re often mistaken for swallows because both birds have forked tails but you can tell the difference – swallows have long ‘streamers’ at the end of their forks, which house martins lack. But what house martins are most famous for is their nests.
House martin nests are made from mud and were originally attached to the faces of cliffs. Human houses are a lot like cliffs and, with them springing up all over the place, house martins have taken advantage. By the beginning of the 20th Century, cliff faces had been abandoned in favour of houses which make much better homes, what with their proximity to sources of food.
They’ll usually build their nests beneath the eaves of a house, where they get some protection from the elements – although sometimes they’ll make their way into lofts. And who can blame them with all that warmth going to waste?
Of course, some people don’t take kindly to having four or five bird’s nests above their front door. All of those droppings on your doorstep and your car – not to mention those that fall on your head! There is a way around this, but it does involve some work. Just put up a shelf about a foot wide two metres below the nests. This will catch most of the barrage from above! Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to remove or destroy the nests – house martins are protected by law and it’s an offence to intentionally kill or injure them, or to take, damage or destroy their eggs, their young or their nests. If you do, you could be sent to prison for 6 months.
House martins have few predators and are protected by the law, but that doesn’t keep them safe from sparrows. These little blighters have been known to attack house martins and their young, even destroying their eggs so that they can take over their ready-made nests. If you have house martins you might want to put up some nest boxes well away from them, just to keep the sparrows away.
We only see house martins over the summer when they come here to breed (they spend their winters thousands of miles away in southern Africa) and we may be seeing less of them. They feed only on flying insects and so are very susceptible to too much wet weather. They also need a little rain in order to get the mud they need to make their homes, so drought hurts them too. As a result of the increase in extreme conditions brought about by climate change, house martin numbers are falling. There are 30% less nests than there used to be.
If you’ve never seen a house martin then go on over to our free-to-play nature quizzes. We have more than 60 of them, and 30 are all about British birds. Take a look and see if you come across any of these mud-building migrants.