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I Can’t Feed my Favourite Bird! So What’s my Favourite Bird?

Monday, 13th April 2015

So what’s my favourite bird? The swallow. Always has been and I suspect it always will be. They look good at a distance – sleek, streamlined miniature jet planes – and they look good close up –a charming red bib, eyes as big and dark as a baby seals, a beak set in a permanently benign smile, and a cheery jumble of a song that is the very definition of the word “twitter”. But it’s not how they sound or look, it’s what they do.


I have always been fascinated and excited by migration and swallows are one of the champion migrants. Here is a bird that nests in northern Europe, flies south to winter in southern Africa, and then returns back northwards on an incredible journey that takes it across all sorts of varied terrains, many of which I have had the privilege to witness myself and will never forget.

I have seen swallows zipping through the legs of giraffes, and skimming past the nostrils of hippos in Africa. Swallows struggling through sandstorms, barely a foot above the dunes in the Sahara desert, and Swallows soaring through a mountain pass high in the Pyrenees. I have watched thousands of them streaming low over the waves of the English channel, and an exhausted pair landing on floating seaweed on a remote Shetland island in May.

Perhaps the sighting that thrilled me most was in late June. I was filming in Iceland, and had the privilege of being allowed to land on the tiny island of Surtsey, which rose volcanically from the ocean less than 50 years ago. It was a truly emotional experience witnessing life colonising a brand new home. Tiny plants were sprouting from seeds had been carried on the wind or on the feathers or in the droppings of the seabirds that had flown in and established a small settlement. One pair of Snow Buntings appeared to be breeding. What would be next? Just as we were boarding the helicopter to be lifted from the still smouldering crater, I spotted a lone small adventurer, a pioneer, an explorer, possibly the first of its kind to have reached Surtsey. A Swallow. I couldn’t help wondering: would it stay on the island, or would it carry on further – on to North America perhaps?

But of course there is a big irony here. As much as I’d love to, I can’t feed my favourite bird! A Swallow’s diet consists entirely of flying insects. Some so tiny we can hardly see them, others more visible, such as “daddy long legs” and dragonflies. All are caught “on the wing”. I really don’t think there is going to be Bill Oddie’s Swallow Food! What I can suggest is that if you have room in your garden for a pond – or even a swimming pool – it will attract insects, and therefore possibly swallows. Of course, if you have an outhouse, garage or porch – anything with shelves and beams – you are providing an ideal home for breeding swallows and their families. Make sure they can get in and out!

If they are successful, you may be treated to the classic image of autumn – parallel telegraph wires, with swallows dotted along them like notes on a musical stave.

Meanwhile, they say “one swallow doesn’t make a spring”, but spring is definitely here, and so soon will be the swallows. Enjoy them.

Bill x

PS. Keep your eyes peeled for swallows as they’re returning. Why not log your sights here: http://www.naturescalendar.org.uk/bsw?utm_content=buffer43a51&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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