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House Martins

Houses and homes and the art of seduction ...

by Ean Lawrence, June 2010

House Martin's Nest A pair of house martins have been labouring, with admirable patience and persistence, on the construction of their nest for over a month now. Since they arrived punctually at the end of April they have, from first light until the daylight dims at the close of the day, been making flights to and fro between the nest site - in the acute angle of the apex of the roof on the new extension of the school - and the source of the raw material for the nest. Over-active moles have unwittingly aided the martins by heaving up vast quantities of excavated earth.

The first time you are aware of these ‘parish’ birds is the flash of blue-black as they skim, veer and gyre in the air space above the school playground. The amount of energy on display belies the distances they have travelled on migration from the exotic locations in which they have spent the winter; the impulse to migration is inescapable and the reproductive imperative is re-invigorating and cannot be ignored

The start of the building work is marked by one of the pair dabbing the first pellet of moistened mud against the rough-cast wall and chirping what proves to be an irresistible invitation to its partner to settle alongside it. Spreading wings, they plummet and describe a graceful arc in the air, effortlessly soaring to conduct their courtship on the wing.

The painstaking work of construction continues uninterrupted by playing children, a lesson in diligence, commitment and industry – and how to ignore noisy children. At first, the work seems to progress relatively quickly, each day’s efforts measured by a course of dark mud slowly drying. Over a period of a few days, however, as the base of the nest from which the bulk of it will thrust is established, the bands of fresh mud narrow as the wall of the cup begins to gently distend. Despite the toil involved and the occasional disaster that befalls the unfortunate and the inexperienced, completion of the project is achieved, it seems, on time and on budget. The next phase can now begin – the provision of the soft furnishings of the single-room abode.

The shape of the nest and the practical purpose for which it is intended makes most of the choices straight forward. The main consideration is what the nest will be lined with. Close at hand, there is a ready supply of yielding moss; add dry grass and stray feathers, and a soft lining to the bijou residence is created. The result is a comfortable, desirable and well-appointed dwelling in which to raise a brood of house martins. Let’s hope that they are as successful as they were last year.

Most mornings at this time of the year when I arrive at school and cross the playground heading in the direction of Class 1, there is a blackbird perched at the very top of a tree close to the pond; it’s not possible to get any higher in this tree. From this vantage point, he pours out a stream of liquid melody. The tree he favours is not the largest or the tallest tree around. What appears to attract this discerning bird to this tree is its shape. The topmost part of the tree rises above its immediate neighbours in a form that suggests a pyramid or cone. Thus, when the blackbird is in position on this natural pinnacle it can be both clearly seen and plainly heard. He always faces the same way and the mellifluous, fluty song that it pours into the morning air seems almost visible, mingling with the other songs in the morning chorus that has been filling the airwaves from the moment just before the new day has dawned.

The school is also popular among house sparrows. Although the house sparrow is reported as being in decline in some places of the UK, our population of gregarious sparrows remains fairly constant in its number. Given the age and the material from which it is constructed, they favour the older, Victorian, part of the school: dislodged stones under the wall plate admit entry to cosy crevices within the thick walls; and so the old building offers many opportunities for nest building; there is much squabbling for the most desirable locations from which generations of cheeky sparrows have been raised and eventually fledged.

One of their most amusing antics – perhaps it’s unfair to call it frolicsome given its importance in maintaining good health – to watch is their bathing, whether in water or the dust - this is not as prurient as it sounds as at all times they maintain their modesty by not removing their feathered coats; and sometimes there’s a good old social sing-song. All that seems to be lacking is an old joanna and a pianist on the edge of intoxification struggling to maintain his dignity. What these cheeky chappies lack in colourful plumage they more than make up for with their mischievous behaviour. Disputes over the crumbs that have spilled from packed lunches flare up in an instant; but these spats are usually short-lived as the antagonists realize that there’s more than enough to go round, and harmony is restored – for now.