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

Share

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.

READ MORE:
If London Zoo really cared about animals, they would cancel their rowdy 'Zoo Lates' parties  

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living