Friday, November 12, 2010

Welcome Swallows

The welcome swallow is something of a rare bird within Greytown itself but I have seen it in numbers out of town, up the top of Wood Street and along the Ruamahunga River. I've also seen a solitary bird along North Street and recently a couple this town end of Wood Street.

I've often wondered why they do not appear to have taken up residence in the town itself because even in my back yard there are good warm places for them to nest and shelter and I would have thought anywhere where the fantail prevails, so too would the swallow. So I was greatly interested when one of my neighbours recently told me about of pair of birds which were regularly visiting his shed off the Main Street. They were indeed welcome swallows. Hopefully they will nest there this coming spring.

The welcome, or house swallow, was self introduced from Australia in the 1950s so it is categorised as a fully protected native bird. Birds do keep coming across the Tasman from Australia. As well as Australasia, the bird breeds in Southern Asia from India to Malaysia and the western Pacific. The spread of the swallow has been spectacular and they are now a very common bird throughout New Zealand, although much more numerous in the warmer north.

They are small, graceful, dark blue and white birds, with variable amounts of rusty red on the head and breast. They have streamlined bodies with a short neck and long, pointed wings. The tail is a deeply forked “swallowtail”. Their flight is graceful and rapid as they hawk for insects on the wing. They are birds of open country, hunting over lakes, rivers and grassland and are often seen perching on power lines like so many clothes pegs.
They are in competition with Piwakawaka, the fantail, which also enjoys small insects on the wing but they seem to live happily enough together, although expert thinking says that no two species can occupy the same ecological niche without the demise of one. By my observations, it seems the fantail is better able to cope with winter and violent storms by its ability to use safe roosting places. However I do think the welcome swallow may now outnumber the fantail.
Having had the opportunity of watching swallows closely, I can say with certainty that the nest is made of small pellets of mud. The nest is built up line by line, the mud mixed with short lengths of grass to give greater adherence to the structure and lined with hair, wool and feathers. In shape the nest resembles a shallow bowl and is completed in just a few days with both birds sharing the workload. They particularly like bridges to nest under but will choose also to nest in garages and under the eaves of houses.
The Australian bird, like its European counterpart, is migratory. Indeed it is thought that during its yearly migration to and from Tasmania, the birds were blown off course by storms and so ended up here. The welcome swallow shows no signs of being migratory here in New Zealand.
The European swallows are regarded as harbingers of spring and the ancient Greeks had festivals to welcome their arrival. The proverb, “one swallow does not a summer make”, is a pretty near literal translation of an ancient Greek proverb. In the ancient world, the birds were particularly associated with the household gods and their presence was looked upon as fortuitous. Conversely, any harm done to them could bode evil for the household.

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