The Kerry Swallow

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Nothing heralds the approach of summer in County Kerry as the return of the swallows, they are the very epitome of summer. In Kerry they are distributed throughout the whole county.
The swallow is known as 'the bird of freedom,' which is derived from its hebrew name, deror. This reflects the fact that one of the chief characteristics of the swallow is that it cannot endure captivity, but is forced by instinct to pass from one country to another for the purpose of keeping itself in a tolerably uniform temperature, moving northwards as the spring ripens into summer, and southwards as autumn begins to sink into winter.

By its marvellous instinct the swallow traces its way over vast distances, passing over hundreds of miles where nothing but the sea or even the desert is beneath it, and yet at the appointed season returning with unerring certainty to the spot where it was hatched.

It is thought that its body uses the earth's magnetic field to guide it; and the fact is certain that Swallows have been observed to leave the country on their migration, and to return in the following year to the identical nest from where they started.

Flying, the swallow is most graceful. Its effortless twisting and turning in search of food is a delight to watch. The ceaseless flight is occasionally interrupted by a brief stall to intercept an insect which has nearly — but not quite — passed. The long tail is used to good effect to accomplish the intricate manoeuvre.

Swallows have long pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. The back is covered in dark blue feathers which have a lustrous almost metallic sheen underneath, blue collar and a deep red face. The swallow is a small bird, with adults reaching 17 to 21mm in length.

The swallow's close relation, the house martin, usually feeds at a considerably greater height than the swallow, as does the swift. In fact only during cool, wet or windy conditions will all the hirundines and the swift be found feeding together low over a broad or in the lee of woodland from which insects may be blown or where food may be sheltering.

Swallows tend to nest inside buildings, showing a preference for farm sheds, barns and outbuildings, of which there are many in County Kerry. Adults can negotiate astonishingly narrow gaps to gain access to suitable nesting sites. It is rather curious that the presence of the bird should so generally be thought to bring luck to a house.

The bird does not, however, restrict itself to the habitations of man, though it prefers them; and in those places where no houses are to be found, and yet where insects are plentiful, it takes possession of the clefts of rocks, and therein makes its nest.

Many instances are known where the Swallow has chosen the most extraordinary places for its nest. It has been known to build year after year on the frame of a picture, between the handles of a pair of shears hung on the wall, on a lamp- bracket, in a table-drawer, on a door-knocker, and similar strange localities.

Swallow eggs are laid one a day and there is often a second clutch. In cold weather feeding the young becomes difficult. At such times the male swallows act rather selfishly. The females spend as much time feeding their brood as they do looking after themselves.

But the males put much more effort into seeing to their own needs. Both male and female are aggressive at the nest, chasing off intruders; threatening with feathers raised and bill open — even fighting fiercely.

The adult swallow spends most of its time in the air, using its aerobatic prowess to chase down flying insects. Swallows feed a wide variety of insects to their nestlings — including wasps.

Flies are certainly favourites, particularly for first broods. Eight out of every 10 insects eaten are flies. Surprisingly, most are large including greenbottles, bluebottles and horseflies.

For the first few days after the nestlings have hatched, unmated male swallows are frequent visitors to the nest. Surprisingly, one way that such males can acquire a mate is to kill the young nestlings and then pair with the female who has to start a new family.

One observer watched a male remove a whole brood by picking up each nestling, flying some distance away and then dropping it on the ground.

After breeding swallows gather in communal roosts, sometimes thousands strong. Reedbeds are regularly favoured. The birds give spectacular pre-roosting displays, bunching tougher and towering higher and even higher before swerving and swirling en masse before swooping low over the reeds.

Swallows are able to obtain food while migrating. Unlike most other passerines they are diurnal migrants, travelling at almost ground level and skimming the waves whereas most migrants move at a height of several thousand feet. To drink, these graceful birds skim low over the surface scooping water with open mouths.

Swallows rarely settle in large trees, except on bare long dead branches. However, they frequently use willow plantations and reedbeds for the impressively large roosts formed prior to departure. At times up to 4000 swallows may assemble.

Each morning, across County Kerry favoured lengths of wires are lined with hundreds of adult and young swallows. Then one day the cables are deserted. The 6000 mile journey to South Africa has begun. Towards the end of this month the majority will have left although in some years sizeable numbers linger through October. Stragglers are reported until the onset of night frosts during November and December.

Reaching the Continent our Kerry swallows change direction to a southerly point, the un-ending stream eventually concentrating along the east coast of Spain. Many cross the Mediterranean heading towards Africa at the narrowest point in the vicinity of Gibraltar.

High above the skies will be filled with gliding cranes, storks and birds of prey. Ahead lies the Sahara — a long haul of several hundred miles which can last for two days or more with little opportunity for rest, water or food.

The swiftness of flight for which this bird is remarkable is noticed by the sacred writers. 'As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come' (Prov. xxvi. 2). This passage is given rather differently in the Jewish Bible, though the general sense remains the same: 'As the bird is ready to flee, as the swallow to fly away; so a causeless execration, it shall not come.' It is possible, however, that this passage may allude rather to the migration than the swiftness of the bird.

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