If you have been out and about in the local countryside you may have seen Swallows returning from their Winter sites in sub-Saharan Africa, flying over Morocco, Spain and France covering about 200 miles a day. Older males usually arrive first and start to sing across their territory trying to attract a mate from the flocks of females who arrive slightly later.
The birds are a glossy, dark blue-black above and pale white below with a reddish chin and throat with a black band across the chest and they have characteristic very long forked tail-streamers. They belong to the Hirundiniae family which also includes Martins and, though similar-looking, they are not even closely related to Swifts. There are 84 species worldwide and ‘our’ Swallow - Hirundo rustica – also known as the Barn Swallow is the most widespread globally.
The Swallows we see in Europe mostly spend their Winters in central and southern Africa (a few overwinter in the South of Spain) and somewhat surprisingly, the birds from Britain and Europe spend their Winter in countries such as Botswana and South Africa which are further South than the overwintering sites of the birds from Central and Southern Europe.
They like to nest on dark ledges and in nooks and crannies that offer protection from both heat and cold. The birds return to the same area with almost half reusing the same nest but unlike House-martins they don’t really nest in colonies. Their cup-shaped nests require quite a bit of effort with around 1,300 trips needed to collect enough material and it seems that the longest-tailed (the most attractive) males do the least work on this… Swallows may attempt two or three broods in a season so crucial time and energy is saved if they have a ready-made nest.
They are noticeably agile fliers, comfortably catching prey on the wing and they also drink whilst airborne, flying low over rivers and lakes swooping down to scoop up a beak-full of water. Unlike Swifts they are happy to land and can be seen in large numbers on overhead wires or even feeding on the ground.
Historically, even up until as late as the 19th Century, people thought that, as Swallows disappeared from European skies and then reappeared over the waters in the Spring, they must have spent the Winter months buried in undersea mud. Fisherman would tell stories of the birds being caught in nets and mud-covered birds emerging to fly over boats and harbours.
Swallows have long been associated with the Spring and are believed to bring good luck and happiness and are a symbol of sacrifice and rebirth. They are considered lucky by sailors, perhaps being seen as portents of a safe return. Traditionally, after completing 5000 nautical miles of travel, a sailor would get a tattoo of a Swallow – an emblem made especially famous by the art of Norman Collins, better known as ‘Sailor Jerry’, a tattooist (and 3-masted Schooner skipper) who moved to Hawaii in the 1930s and whose now-classic design has become famous across the world.