The House Martins

Finally a dry, sunny, warm Sunday morning. Through a bright blue sky with only a few white fluffy clouds soar numerous, small, dark pointy winged birds with forked tails. As they twist and turn against the sky a brilliant white belly and rump flash against the dark back and wings. Their calls fill the air. To me it sounds like someone blowing short raspberries, Robyn in particular does a very good impression. It is in fact a short chirrup, but I like the analogy of my daughter blowing raspberries better! There are twenty or so of these small birds dashing through the warm morning. In groups they dip low and then shoot up under the eaves of the small brick cottage sitting near to farm buildings and open ground. Looking up under the eaves there are a dozen or so small, round, muddy brown blobs attached to the underside with a small dark hole. The birds are House Martins, and with the reed beds at Cranwich completely flooded with limited access we decided to try our luck at trying to catch some of these gorgeous little birds.

The distinctive House Martin

In the same way we caught Swifts, we now hoist up a net in front of the eaves and the House Martin nests. As the birds drop out of the nest they invariably fall into the pockets of mist net and we are able to extract them safely.

Up close they are not merely a black and white bird. The feathers on the back are glossy dark bluish purple, the contrast with the white rump and belly is striking. But the very best feature of House Martins are their feathered legs, right the way down to the claws on their toes.

Up close to the House Martin

As with the Swifts one might ask the question, why go to this much trouble to try and catch House Martins? Well sadly, like the Swifts, House Martins are Amber listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern and has undergone a moderate decline in numbers.

House Martins are a summer breeder, spending the winter south of the Sahara in Africa. They arrive from April, and although many do not start breeding immediately very soon they begin to build their little mud nests, often repairing old nests.  It is a delight to see small groups of chattering House Martins at muddy pools of water during the early summer, collecting their beakfuls of mud before swooping up to careful place them to form a the muddy shell which is then lined with soft feathers. One of problems is the lack of nesting spaces with modern buildings and the removal of nests from houses. It is illegal to remove House Martin nests during the breeding season, although many are still unfortunately destroyed because of the issue of the bird’s droppings.

House Martin chicks peeking from the nest

Such is the concern with the decline in House Martins nesting in the UK, especially in England, the British Trust for Ornithology is running a National Survey of House Martins to try and establish reliable population estimates, investigate how the population is distributed and look at the position of nests, timing and number of broods. If you would like to find out more about the survey, and maybe even make a donation to help fund the research then please check out the BTO website.

For us we now have the exciting opportunity of a breeding colony of House Martins that we can monitor on a regular basis.


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