Last year the House Martins arrived in Albania at about the same time that I did. They caught my attention right away, with their acrobatic swooping and gliding above the neighbourhood where I live. I excitedly noticed that several of them had begun to build nests on the eaves of my home. I also noticed several mud circles where nests had previously existed, but had collapsed or been removed before my family’s arrival, so I suspected that these House Martins might use my home as a nesting site year after year. What a great opportunity to observe a bird species I wasn’t yet familiar with!
It didn’t take long for me to discover the mess that comes along with house martin nests: first the mud crumbles, then the grass and string, and finally–piles and piles of droppings, a charming accent to my front step. (I might add that the mess does, however, provide a wonderful summer cleaning job for kids). Despite the mess, I enjoyed having the house martins around. They’re beautiful birds, captivating to watch, as they glide high above catching insects. And of course there’s always something special about a nest full of chicks.
I will admit that I was a little relieved when they migrated in the fall and I–and my kids were relieved of our sidewalk-scrubbing duties. But, not being very familiar with European migration routes, I became curious: Where did the House Martins go during their non breeding season? How far did they have to travel? How many of the young chicks would survive? After a little research I was surprised to learn that their impressive round-trip journey begins and ends in sub-Saharan Africa and that, unlike many species, House Martins migrate on a broad-front across the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert. Suddenly, I was much more appreciative of how much these small birds must endure in their migratory journey.
When the first of the House Martins made their appearance this year I was thoroughly excited! They arrived only a few weeks after Albania’s first case of COVID-19, which for me brought several months spent at home with three of my children in “virtual school” and my toddler who loves to play in the dirt. I spent many, many hours in our small garden exploring nature. We discovered a nest of praying mantises hatching, enjoyed daily visits from a mud dauber wasp who must have been working on a nest nearby, successfully grew a variety of potted plants, and sadly, my son experienced his first bee sting. I was also able to get much more familiar with House Martins.
I watched them carefully construct their nests from mud pellets collected with their beaks, amid seemingly constant harassment from house sparrows trying to invade. Then they diligently worked to line the nests, flying away and always returning carrying bits of string and grass. The end results of their building are a wonder to me: a rounded, hollow cup of small mud bits that somehow stays cemented to the wall and overhang without falling off and without falling apart, even with a pair of martins coming and going dozens of times each day, squeezing their slender bodies through an opening small enough to make me feel claustrophobic just watching.
It wasn’t long before small, white, broken eggshells littered the ground under the nests, affirming that their hard work had paid off! But of course broken eggshells don’t necessarily mean a happy ending. Their struggle continues. On one occasion I stepped outside just in time to see a magpie attacking a nest and carrying off a young chick. And there is the constant work of catching enough food for themselves and the hatchlings. Then, after the chicks do fledge, there is the long journey back to Africa.
As I take in the bigger picture of a House Martin’s migratory journey, and the challenges they must endure for survival and successful reproduction, I feel, in a way, honored, to host these birds during what must be the most exciting and important event of the year for them – the breeding season. I have begun to see these seasonal visitors as welcome guests (who bring along messes and certain annoyances like many lovable human house guests do), but who, with greater understanding, have gained my admiration and awe.
House martins are quite common. At first glance, they might seem rather unremarkable. Without looking upward, someone could easily fail to notice dozens of them flying directly overhead. But, as is so often the case, a deeper understanding brings greater appreciation. For me, the joy of observing and understanding birds brings an expanding sense of respect for them and a greater desire for their protection and success. And in this case, it also brought a silver lining to the gray clouds of a pandemic.