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2 July 2015

House martins, the little dolphins that love to slide on your roof

Martins are in steep decline now, but once their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain.

By Richard Mabey

So the robin has been voted the UK’s “national bird” by more than 224,000 people, beating the barn owl by three to one. Springwatch insisted that it wanted votes for a species that “represented” the nation, not just personal favourites. So commentators have had fun suggesting the image of the UK reflected by the back-garden worm-digger: something chipper, plucky, punching above its size, a feathery echo of the Spitfire. Or the descendant of William Blake’s “redbreast in a cage”, which stood for all tyrannical imprisonments. I’m sceptical about whether viewers were quite so politically calculated in their choices, and suspect most simply voted for a bird loved for its bright eyes, winter song and sheer companionability.

The native robin’s legendary fork-perching is an intimacy not seen in Continental robins, which lurk in woods and, inconveniently for myth-makers, often migrate to Britain at just the season the species becomes a national emblem of Christmas, too.

The idea of a “national bird” is odd, when you think about it, suggesting that nationhood confers similar characters on human being and bird alike. North Americans are proud of the magisterial symbolism of their bald eagle and ignore the fact that the real bird lives on fish and scavenged carrion and is far from unique to the land of the free.

But there are birds that are true human familiars, and live so close to us that they transcend metaphor and become real neighbours. I bet that 30 years ago one of these, the house martin, would have been high in Springwatch’s top ten. Martins are in steep decline now, but in those days their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain. A famous colony nested in the rose windows of the French embassy in Knightsbridge, another in the public conveniences on the chic promenade at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Their Latin name is Delichon urbica. They are colonial, sociable, as playful as the miniature dolphins they resemble. To have them nesting on your house is to have engaging guests for the duration of summer. The intricate building of the nests, the diligent feeding, the games of the young (I have seen them tobogganing down tiled roofs) are an insight into a parallel civic society. One particularly hot summer, ours built a verandah for their first brood to roost in. They would, I think, be the co-op movement’s national bird.

In 1774, the godfather of nature writing, Gilbert White, presented a mould-breaking essay on martins to the Royal Society. Nothing remotely like it had been written about birds before. Virginia Woolf thought it had narrative structures worthy of a novelist. White’s observations and empathy transcend 18th-century science as surely as they do crude anthropomorphism. He respects the birds as fellow citizens, “industrious artificers”, and details how they construct their nests, observing “that this work may not, whilst it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect [builds] only in the morning and . . . gives it sufficient time to dry and harden”. Turning conventional human-centredness upside down, he suggests that human wall-builders may have been “informed at first” by the bird.

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Now, modern builders and the owners of their constructions are partly to blame for the house martin being on the skids. Mud won’t stick to plastic roof seals. Householders illegally poke down nests to stop droppings soiling the Dulux. Across much of Europe, by contrast, nesting birds are regarded as a blessing on a house. I once saw some nests in Crete – still occupied – included in the repainting of a house’s exterior. Back home, I miss such human whimsy and avian communal spirit, and find our summers lonelier without them.

Richard Mabey will appear at Latitude Festival in July

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