NATURE – ‘There’s joy, hello hello swallows, there’s joy…” The return of spring is inseparable from the return of swallows to our French skies. With their slender tails and long wings, their silhouette in flight is a harbinger of the evenings getting longer.
But where do they come from? While France has five different species of swallows, the ones you are most likely to come across are the barn swallow and the house swallow.
“They are great migrants, explains the HuffPost Jérémy Dupuy, project manager “Avifaunistic surveys and atlases” at the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO). They will spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa.” And therefore return to France from March to May.
Drop in workforce
Thanks to their number – tens of millions of pairs – and their distribution in Europe, swallows are not considered endangered species. Nevertheless, the drop in numbers over the past 20 years is worrying.
“These are species in decline, in particular the barn and house swallow, of the order of 20% since the beginning of the 2000s, warns Jérémy Dupuy. A fairly marked fall and everywhere in Europe.”
They suffer from the disappearance of insects, mainly due to pollution and the use of phytosanitary products. And as they nest a lot on houses, human activity has direct consequences on their survival.
“The renovation of the building will destroy the nests and all the new buildings are not suitable for swallows’ nests, explains the specialist. For example, the barn swallow likes to nest in old barns, but when they are renovated the access points are closed and the ceilings are renewed. And the swallows no longer have a place to settle.”
Forbidden to destroy the nests
Despite the ban on destroying swallows’ nests, an offense punishable by one year in prison and a fine of up to €15,000, some residents, to avoid nuisance, also tend to get rid of them.
“Swallows’ nests are protected, like individuals, even in winter, when the birds are not there”, underlines Jérémy Dupuy, who admits that fines are still rare. When it comes to colonies of several dozen pairs of swallows, on a public building for example, “compensation measures” can be considered.
“The administrations are obliged to install nesting boxes on the building or next to it”, he explains. And this summer and winter, whether the swallows are there or on the move. “They are ‘philopatric’, which means that the same birds come back to nest in the same place, emphasizes Jérémy Dupuy. On some farms or buildings, some nests are used over generations and generations.”
The swallow is also a “colonial” species, which means that it often lives in groups. “In France, we see it much less, but for example in Spain, in certain villages, we can have colonies of sometimes 100 to 150 nests, all clutched, which look like clusters, says the ornithologist. It’s part of the landscape, people are attached to the swallows coming back every year.”
How to spot a nest?
At home, the comings and goings of swallows, in garages or barns, are a first indicator of their presence. “When they are window swallows, they will nest on a roof overhang, above the entrance to a house for example. And there it is the same, there are passages”, indicates Jérémy Dupuy.
Unlike other species, swallows’ nests are not made of plants, branches, straw or grass: they are made of earth and saliva, which makes them quite typical.
“They are really stuck in the corners, for example between a beam and the ceiling, describes Jérémy Dupuy. And what is always remarkable is that after a while, there is a pile of droppings just below. When doing surveys to find out if nests are occupied, it is a good indicator.”
These same droppings which can push certain inhabitants to want to get rid of it. Before considering committing this offence, here is the solution suggested by the LPO expert: “Just install a wooden board under the nest so that the droppings fall on the board and not all over the wall and the floor. Once they are gone you remove the board, clean it and put it back for the next year.”
Promote their presence
To encourage their presence and their installation, it is possible to install nest boxes made or purchased commercially, even if they are not as effective as for other species, such as tits.
“We can install them now, because even if they are unlikely to be used this year, the young individuals who have just been born, during their phase of ‘dispersion’, will wander around and find places to the following years”, explains Jérémy Dupuy.
They must be placed high enough, under the roofs, at the level of the skylights, above the entrance to the houses for example, or against the beams, under the overhangs of the roof. We can put several and give the impression of a colony, by three or four.
To invite swallows and biodiversity in general, simple advice can work, such as avoiding phytosanitary products, not mowing the lawn every week or letting the grass grow in a few places, favoring the presence of insects in your garden. …
On electric wires
The swallow spends most of its time in flight. “An effective trick that applies to all birds is to put drinking troughs or water points, advises Jérémy Dupuy. If we have the space, we can even install a pond or a slightly larger container, because the swallows drink while flying.”
One of the rare moments when the swallow can be observed at rest is when it stands on the electric wires, when it is time to leave. The migration begins at the end of July and continues until the end of October, with a peak of passage in the month of September.
“Often, gatherings are done on electric wires, points out Jérémy Dupuy. You can sometimes see 100, 200 swallows perched above your home.” Just raise your head and observe. It’s already time to leave.
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