Birdwatch: this spring, I mourn the missing house martins | Birds

As it shears through the spring skies, sweeping up tiny insects, the house martin’s contrasting dark-blue and white plumage reminds me of a miniature version of a killer whale.

But not this year. Although I’ve caught up with virtually every other spring arrival – even the late-returning swallows and swifts – I’ve only seen a handful of house martins, and none so far in my Somerset village.

I’m not the only person lamenting their absence. On our village Facebook page, amid the excitement of the jubilee celebrations, several of my neighbors have noted that this spring, on houses that for many years have hosted house martins, there are no nests.

There are several reasons for the decline of these birds. One is the huge fall in the number of flying insects, their staple diet. Another is that some people resent being woken up by their sociable chattering, and so remove the nests each winter – incredibly, this is still not against the law. Finally, they may be suffering from problems such as habitat loss on their African wintering grounds.

If we knew where house martins spend the winter, then we could be sure. Hopefully, very soon, we’ll be able to place tiny tracking devices on these global travelers, and discover where they actually go. Then, at last, we may be able to secure the future of this charismatic little bird.

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