House Martin | Neville James-Davies


Soon, the hirundines will be gathering in large groups on the wires and in tree tops, preparing themselves for migrating back to Africa, a journey some will have done many times and always with its dangers.

Here we have summer breeding Swallows and House Martins, with the Crag Martin a breeding resident. The beautiful little House Martin is a familiar sight in the summer, around churches and houses alike, and trying to outcompete a small, annoying resident.

The House Martin (Delichon urbicum), sees the Greek word delichon as an anagram of chelidon and means ‘swallow’. Urbs is the Latin word for ‘city’. They are a small genus of birds which belong to the swallow family. Chunky, bull-headed and short-tailed, they stand out from the other hirundines and are blackish-blue above with a contrasting white rump - which is a great identification feature even from a long distance.

White (or grey) underparts finish off their colouring and they have feathering on their toes and tarsi, a feature characteristic of this genus. They are closely associated with other Swallows that build mud nests, particularly the ‘hirundo’ Barn Swallows.

The voice is a soft, sweet twittering song, and the arrival of hundreds of them at migration time is a lovely moment for the birdwatcher - and a sombre moment too at the end of summer when they converge in their thousands to depart back to Africa. They weigh 16-23g but are strong and agile fliers. They like the high air-space above towns and villages and occasionally along coastal cliffs.

House Sparrow

Before the construction of higher buildings, they nested most commonly on cliff faces - much like the resident Crag Martins still do. A colonial nester, the nest is feather or grass lined inside, and outside it consists of wet mud collected at the edge of ponds or rivers, and placed together where it dries to form the characteristic construction we see under the overhangs and eaves of buildings, with a small entrance hole just the right size for themselves.

A typical clutch will see 2-3 eggs which are glossy white and smooth, occasionally marked a fine red-brown. Both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the young. Being excellent aerial hunters, they catch insects such as Aphids, Lacewings, winged Ants and even species of Lepidoptera. They tend to feed higher up than other hirundines as this reduces inter-specific food competition, particularly with the Swallow which shares the same feeding areas.

When nest constructing, they have to compete with the resident House Sparrows which frequently attempt to take over their nest site during construction. The entrance at the top is a cup shape and too small for a Sparrow to fit through once finished. Pairing and copulating displays tend to generally be brief, taking just a few minutes. The male calls to the female and attempts to lead her to the nest where he lands and continues calling, posing with the head lowered, the throat ruffled and the wings drooped. If successful, the female will call and allows him to mount her, usually inside the nest. Although the nest is generally a clean construction, with the droppings discarded outside of the nest, internal parasites are to be found.

House Martins gathering to migrate

They are parasitised by fleas and mites including the ‘House Martin Flea’ (ceratophyllus hirundinis) and its relatives. In fact, more than forty species of Beetle have been recorded in House Martin nests but can also be typical of the locality and found in the nests of other species too. House Sparrows don’t get away with it either, and their nests can see up to 1,400 individual Beetles. But despite their great flying skills, the House Martin needs to keep a wary eye out for two skilful hunters found on Mallorca - the summer breeding Hobby and Eleanora’s Falcons, both adept at catching hirundines and Swifts alike as well as the other skilful fliers - Dragonflies.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) sees the specific name coming from ‘domus’, the Latin word for a dwelling. Few birds are more associated with people than the Sparrow, and despite being a noisy, gregarious little bird, they are much loved around the homes and in the garden, where they eat a variety of insects and seeds which is a welcome sight to the vegetable and crop grower. They will certainly take advantage of outdoor cafes too, and many a time I have been sat outside a cafe and one has been feeding around the legs of the chairs and table, or even popped onto the table itself to pick at any tiny left overs.

Cliffs of Formentor - typical nesting sites

Two special moments always come to mind when I see a group of Sparrows, the first is sat outside the little cafe opposite the church in the tiny village of Ses Sallines near the salt pans area. Here, after bird watching around the salt pans and the nearby site of Es Trenc, I stop off here for some lunch, and specifically sit on the corner table where not only can I watch the world go by, but the nesting House Martins around the church opposite with Common Swifts ‘screaming’ around the place, but groups of House Sparrows that come very close to diners, hopping around on the ground, calling, and squabbling with each other when they find some fallen food. Watching one tackling an Olive I had dropped once was a comical scene.

My other fond memory was when sat outside a restaurant one summer evening in Puerto Pollensa square - where a large tree close by was to be the roosting spot for the local House Sparrows. More and more came in as the evening progressed and soon there were several hundred, all chattering away noisily amongst themselves.

It was almost like they were discussing the days adventures, where they had fed, what they had been feeding on, predators they had evaded, tables they had found some scraps on. They nattered on and on and the sound was quite loud and even distracting to some. Soon they started to mellow a bit and the chattering continued but at a lower level now, and then all of a sudden, as if the elder of the group had called ‘good night’, they stopped chattering and fell silent to go to sleep - a great moment and one I saw repeated over many other nights.