One swallow doesn't make a summer

ONE bird has become so closely associated with summer that a popular catchphrases inextricably links the two - one swallow doesn't make a summerThe swallow is the archetypal summer visitor, yet there's much more to swallows than simply being a popular migrant.

ONE bird has become so closely associated with summer that a popular catchphrases inextricably links the two - one swallow doesn't make a summer

The swallow is the archetypal summer visitor, yet there's much more to swallows than simply being a popular migrant.

Swallows have a place in our hearts for many reasons. They are mentioned in many stories and poems and centuries of folklore surround them. Many of them nest close to people. They are also good indicators of our changing environment, both in the UK and Africa.

Yet many people find it hard to distinguish between swallows, swifts and house martins.

Let's start with some of the folklore. The popular phrase “one swallow doesn't make a summer” is certainly true. The first swallows to reach the UK usually arrive in mid March, but it is mid April before they are widespread. This year, they brought dry sunny weather with them, but it's not always the case. Swallows then remain with us until late September, with a few stragglers until late November.

In Mediaeval times it was thought that swallows spent the winter at the bottom of a pond. As European explorers travelled farther afield, and science revealed more of nature's secrets, their true winter destinations were discovered.

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European swallows migrate to sub-Saharan Africa, with most British birds heading as far as South Africa. The journey is arduous as they must cross the vast Sahara desert, running the gauntlet of sandstorms and lack of insects. Each year the desert expands southwards into the Sahel, making the journey ever harder.

The English Channel and Mediterranean Sea are also hazardous crossings, and many young swallows will fail to make the journey successfully. Some succumb to starvation, others to storms, and some will fall victim to hunters in southern Europe or West Africa.

Fortunately, many swallows do succeed in reaching South Africa, and return the following spring. Amazingly, most return not just to the same area, but to the same barn in which they were born. How they navigate so precisely is still not understood, but there's no need for that annoying voice we hear from our in-car sat navs.

Swallows naturally nest on any exposed ledge or overhang, so buildings provide an ideal alternative. Many nest in barns, earning them their modern name of barn swallow. At RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, several pairs nest around the sluice and frequently pose for photos on the nearby fence.

The nest is a mud cup, bound together with saliva. Following the dry spring this year, some swallows may struggle to bind the mud, so if you have them nesting nearby why not create a nice muddy puddle for them.

Each pair will usually rear two broods of youngsters every summer, and some will even manage three. The adults spend the long summer days skimming low over the ground in search of insects. If feeding is good, many young swallows will survive to start the journey south.

Rather than the swallow, it's actually the swift that signals summer's arrival for me, especially the almost eerie screaming as small parties of them swoop through our housing estates in the evenings.

You can buy special nest boxes for swifts, swallows and house martins, helping to compensate for the increasing loss of suitable nest sites as old buildings are demolished or roves modernised. Sand martins, too, take to artificial homes, and many wetland nature reserves have colonies nesting in a concrete sand martin 'cliff'.

So how do you identify a swallow?


Swallows may at first glance appear to be black and white birds, but they are actually extremely colourful. The upperparts are dark metallic blue, and at times almost glint in the sun. They have a dark red throat and white belly.

House martins are even darker blue and slightly less metallic, with even brighter white underparts. They are slightly smaller than swallows, but the their best distinguishing feature is a bright white rump separating the back from the tail.

Sand martins are sandy brown above and white below with a brown breast band.

Swifts are larger, dark brown birds with long wings giving them a distinctive scythe-shape in flight. They are extremely agile as they catch tiny insects high in the sky.


Probably the best identification feature for swallows is their very long tail streamers.

House martins' tails have only a shallow V at the tip.


House martins build a mud nest, but it is almost a completely enclosed cup with a small hole at the top. The nest is built under the eaves of houses. You may be lucky enough to have these beautiful little birds nesting on your house.

Sand martins nest in sandy cliffs, digging a tunnel up to one metre long with a nest chamber at the end.

You're unlikely to see sand martins in the middle of Ipswich, but head to a flooded former gravel pit and you can watch the smallest martins found in the UK. At Minsmere, they nest in man-made cliff outside the tearoom overlooking what used to be the reserve car park.

Swifts nest in crevices in tall buildings, such as churches, and you may even have them nesting in your roof.


Sand martins are usually the first migrants to return in the spring, arriving as early as the first week of March. They leave early though, usually by September. Most only travel as far as West Africa.

Swifts are among the last migrants to return, usually in early May, and will be the first to leave. By mid August they will all have gone.

(at Minsmere unless stated)


13 at 10am to 2pm: Migrants on the move at Heybridge Basin - free event, simply turn up

14, 17, 23, 25 and 29, and June 5 at 9.30am: Discovering Minsmere

15 and 24, June 1 and 6 at 7am: Bitterns and harriers

20 and 26, Saturday 2 and 3 at 9.30am: Weekend wildlife walk

21 at 7am: What's About at Minsmere

27 at 9.30am: Heathland wildlife

29 at 1pm: Fascinating flora

30 and June 7 at 9.30am: Birdwatching for beginners

31 and June 7 at 4.30pm: Summer evening at Minsmere


2 and 3, 10am - 4pm: Optics day

2 at 11am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings Farmers Market

2 at 9.30pm: Moth night at Wolves Wood, Hadleigh (01473 328006 to book)

3 at 9pm: Nightjars

Contact: For general enquiries The RSPB 01767 680551 or e-mail , RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, Westleton, 01728 648281 or e-mail