Immortalised by Macbeth, house martins thrive in Scotland – but not England

Described by Shakespeare as 'the guest of summer', this beautiful bird has been welcomed for centuries. But now, trouble is in the air

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Shakespeare, if you’re interested in the natural world as well as in literature, is the Bard and his birds: the playwright had a remarkable knowledge of ornithology.

He mentions more than 50 bird species in his plays, including all seven members of the crow family in Britain – for the record, jay, magpie, raven, [carrion] crow, rook, jackdaw and chough.

It’s obvious that Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge came from personal observation in his native Warwickshire. He had clearly observed the singular sight of a hedge sparrow, or dunnock, feeding a cuckoo chick so much bigger than itself that the dunnock’s head seems to disappear down the cuckoo chick’s throat, something which has now been photographed a fair few times – because the Fool, in King Lear, tells Lear of this very happening.

But of all Shakespeare’s intimate references to birds, perhaps the most memorable is in Macbeth, Act I Scene VI, where King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle and remarks what a pleasant place  it is (not for much longer for him…) and his courtier Banquo agrees, pointing to  the birds that are flying around its towers and turrets:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.

I find that the loveliest tribute ever written to one of our loveliest birds, the house martin. This summer visitor from Africa, a close cousin of the swallow, with its blue-black back and wings contrasting with its white rump and belly, has been welcomed for centuries when it builds its neatly sculpted mud nests under the eaves of houses; many people regard it as a privilege to have the birds flying acrobatically around their home, with their characteristic call, which sounds like “pirrip”. I certainly would. But the house martin is in trouble.

 

In England, it has declined in the past 40 years by 65 per cent; the birds have gone, for example, from a number of places where I used to see them as a boy. There has been a 17 per cent drop in numbers just in the past 15 years. Yet this contrasts with Scotland, where the bird has shown a strong increase (Banquo would doubtless be pleased). It is one of a small group of species shown by the new atlas of Britain’s birds, published last year, to be doing well north of the border, but very badly to the south – cuckoo and willow warbler are other notable examples.

Nobody knows why. It has been well said that all the birds which migrate to us in the spring from sub-Saharan Africa “live in multiple jeopardy” – that is, they can suffer difficulties on their breeding grounds here in Britain, or on their African wintering grounds, or on the arduous journeys of 3,000 miles and more they make twice-yearly between the two.

In trying to identify the problem, the  first task would naturally be to see if it  is something that is happening here. So  this autumn, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Britain’s leading  bird-research organisation, is launching a House Martin Appeal to back a major research project on the bird which will start next spring.

It will be looking to gather as much information as possible from people who have house martins nesting on their house, such as when the birds arrive, when they start their nest-building, when the first signs of young birds appear, when they  have their second brood and when they depart (there can be chicks in the nest as late as September).

But it will also be looking for more rarefied details, such as the distance from the nest to the nearest patch of mud – which is essential for the birds, who build their “pendant bed and procreant cradle” from mud entirely (swallows use some mud for their nests, but other materials as well).

“We are concerned about the house martin, and we want to get an accurate baseline figure for how the bird is doing, which we don’t really have at the moment,” said the BTO’s Paul Stancliffe. I wish them well. I would give a lot to have the temple-haunting martlet flickering under my eaves.

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