Thursday, 4 June 2009

House Martins near Ivy Green Road

On Monday morning I happened to be walking down Ivy Green Road and at the entrance to the Meadows, on that road, noticed FoCM Treasurer, John Agar, leaning on the metal gate and staring intently down the footpath. Naturally, I joined him to see what he was looking at. At first all I could see was a puddle in the middle distance – but as we watched some small birds swooped down and appeared to be drinking from the puddle. John explained that the birds were House Martins (Delichon urbica) and they were, in fact, gathering mud from the edge of the puddle to build their nests in the eaves of nearby houses. House Martins are in the same family (Hirundinidae) as Swallows and Sand Martins but are much less closely related to the superficially similar Swifts (Apodidae)(1).

John told me that he had been watching House Martins gather mud from this particular area, at this time of year, for at least 30 years. He believes that they prefer this particular spot because it is very open and they have a 360 degrees field of view. For several years now John has been bringing buckets of water down to top-up this puddle during dry spells. He notes that there are far fewer of these little birds present now than in the past. He believes that this probably due to the ever increasing desertification and degradation of these migratory birds’ over-wintering grounds in the Sahel region of North Africa. Having said that, other local birdwatchers tell me that several House Martins’ nesting sites have been destroyed in the recent mad scramble to over-develop Chorlton.

This glimpse of these remarkable birds reminded me of one the strangest coincidences of my life. In the early 1980s I first encountered the works of the Edwardian natural history writer, W.H. Hudson – particularly his book, ‘A Shepherd’s Life’(1910), which is, in my opinion, one of the finest books ever written about the English countryside. The republication of this masterpiece seemed to lead to several other of his books being republished around this time. Among these revivals was a book of his essays entitled, ‘Adventures Among Birds’ (first published 1913). This new edition (2) came out in late 1983 and I remember ‘pouncing on it’ with glee! I recall travelling back on the bus, from the centre of Manchester, to Chorlton, with my ‘prize’ and a copy of the Manchester Evening News (10th December, 1983 – to be precise). I first turned to the newspaper and read (as was my custom in those days) the ‘Country Matters’ column by George Hawthorne who described seeing a Red Squirrel in West Wales. He also lamented the fact that the native Red was being displaced by the introduced American Grey (a process which is still on-going, of course). I recalled seeing a Red Squirrel, about 9 or 10 years before, in the plantation of Corsican Pines which back the sand dunes along the North Norfolk coast, between Well-next-the-Sea and Holkham. I then turned to Hudson’s book and opened it at random to a page in an essay entitled, ‘Autumn 1912’. Imagine my amazement when I found myself reading a description of the antics of a Red Squirrel in exactly the same place that I had seen mine – in the same pine plantation!

Later in the chapter Hudson described how, in the cold, wet autumn of 1912, some House Martins had raised a new brood of chicks and were still feeding them, “... in a nest under the eaves above a sweetstuff shop, within two or three doors of the Wells post office.” He speculated that this particular pair must have produced at least 3 or 4 broods that year. He feared for the survival of the chicks and, “... the women of the house compassionately offered to take them in and feed them, in the hope of keeping them alive until the return of warm weather”. Nevertheless, the birds continued to feed their young and tried, and failed, to lure them from the nest. Then one day the parents abruptly vanished. Hudson procured a ladder and found the chicks dead in the nest. He suggested that, in this particular case, the brooding instinct had over-ruled the migratory instinct – but once the chicks were dead the parents had no option but to set off for Africa.
Oh yes, and I’m pretty certain that the, “women of the house” were my grandmother and great-grandmother – who, at that time, owned a sweet shop near the post office! Sadly, my grandmother died in 1966 – so I never got to ask her about meeting one of my literary heroes.
Dave Bishop, June 2009


1. ‘The Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow, 3rd Edition, Collins, 1974.

2. ‘Adventures Among Birds’ by W.H. Hudson, Breslich & Foss reprint, 1983.

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