07 Aug 2022

Wild About Wildlife: Swallows mark the turn of the season in Limerick

Wild About Wildlife: Swallows mark the turn of the season in Limerick

Best to stand clear: Swallow chicks may mistake you as a predator

STRAW was flying as we cleaned out the hen house on a baking hot day. The hens were all their usual fuss and impatient for us to be gone so that they could get back in and have a good scratch. Occasionally one would try and sneak back in to only to be meet by curses and threats as the oppressive heat made even the sturdiest of tempers flare.
But the hens were not the only ones keeping a close watch on us. Perched on one of the roof rafters just above our heads, three little alert faces were observing these strange creatures hard at work.
The swallows chicks had been forcible fledged from their nest but they are not able to fly yet. Normally they would still be in the nest but this collapsed as it dried out in the week long heat. This meant that they had to perch unsteadily on the rafters while their parents brought them flies to eat.
This constant feeding will stop very soon and with a mixture of avian encouragement and starvation the chicks will take their first flight. This will be the first of hopefully thousands of kilometres that will span Ireland, Europe and Africa.
They were remarkably tame but that was no surprise as they were used to seeing and hearing people. Their parents on the other hand were very agitated and they flew around loudly and skimmed just above already receding hairlines as they flew out the open door.
It also provided a welcome opportunity to get a close examination of the chicks. They were fully feathered but lacked the prominent colours of their parents. They had a white line at base of the beak and this is used for begging when the parents return with flies.
One of the hens hopped up on its perch and stretched up its neck to see what we were looking at. Hens are naturally curious and would have no hesitation in eating a chick. Thankfully they were well out of reach but with the young swallows first flight just days away they will have to be very careful it is not their last.

We left the birds to their own devices but in the morning I checked in first thing to see how the family was doing. I was surprised to find one of the swallow chicks dead on the floor of the hen house while the other two were gone.
I picked up the tiny body and could see no obvious marks and if the hens had got him there would have been a lot of damage.
Yesterday he had been on his own and was divided from his siblings by a roof rafter. I thought that the other two chicks might have taken the parents attention and the food but in my hand at least he felt a good weight.
The most likely cause was that he might have panicked on his first flight and crashed into the side of the hen house and broke his neck. While swallows are natural flyers, flying in enclosed spaces takes real skill and experience. This is something the parents have in abundance but this youngster was lacking.
We had another swallow family on the farm in the potting or seed sowing shed. They were nesting right at the top of the roof where three of the supporting roof met. There were four chicks and they were a great hit with visiting groups. It was very easy to stand under the nest and look up and enjoy the chicks looking back.
All of these chicks have now fledged on the farm and six survivors from a potential seven is a good return in nature. Over the last few days I have seen small flocks of swallows starting to gather on the electricity wires in preparation for the long flight back to Africa.
These small groups will slowly come together and one day they will be here and gone the next. The signal for their departure must be a drop in temperature or more likely light levels.

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