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We were pleased to work with the BBC Radio 4 World on the Move series to look at what was happening to House Martins during the 2008 breeding season.

We are very grateful to everybody who has taken the trouble to send in information about their House Martins. Brett Westwood, from the BBC Radio 4 World on the Move series and I had been talking about the apparent lack of birds this spring and I was delighted to be asked to work with the programme-makers to develop the House Martin Survey. BTO colleagues quickly developed a questionnaire and we were pleased when over 1000 people sent us their data. I hope that you enjoy reading about the results of this year's survey and the anecdotes that people have kindly shared with us.

Graham Appleton

Key points from the 2008 survey.

 
  • Over 1250 people provided information.
  • There was little evidence to show that House Martin numbers were down. Many birds were just very late arriving back from Africa.
  • There were increases in occupancy rate in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The only small decline was in Southern England.
 


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Housemartins by George H Higginbotham
House Martin by John Harding
House Martins by John Harding

National map for House Martins

We were keen to know where House Martins were breeding so that we can produce a House Martin map for the new national Bird Atlas project. The aim is to create an up-to-date distribution map for every species in Britain. House Martins are really difficult to pin down; although some places always have loads of House Martins, other colonies can move about from year to year.

The last national distribution map for House Martins (see right) is based on information from nearly twenty years ago. As you can see, House Martins were found across most of the British Isles, with the biggest concentrations in England. The real hot-spots from the period 1988 to 1991 are in red and purple.

 

Distribution of House Martins from the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain & Ireland 1988-1991

A poor year for Swallows and House Martins?

House Martins, like Swallows, spend the winter in Africa but probably not quite as far south. The theory is that British and Irish House Martins spend our winters hunting for insects over the forests of equatorial Africa. However, these are thinly-populated areas and we have virtually no reports of BTO-ringed birds from south of the Sahara. We do know that, just like Swallows, they fly north in the spring, crossing North Africa, Spain and France and arriving here in April and May. Birdwatchers contributing to Bird Track, the joint BTO, RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland project to collect bird records, were worried that far fewer House Martins made it back this summer. They wondered if they had been adversely affected by poor weather in southern Europe during the spring. In fact, as you will read in the House Martin newsletter, there seem to have been only local declines. Many people did note that birds were very late in arriving.

Artificial nests

House Martins are hard to understand. Some people say that they will take readily to artificial nests, saving themselves a good ten days of nest building, but in other colonies the concrete homes are ignored. We received some interesting comments from people who had tried artificial nests - successfully and unsuccessfully.

What else can I do?

  • This World on the Move House Martin survey is just one of many surveys organised by the BTO. Some people choose to count birds on estuaries, in fields or on our coasts but much valuable information can be collected from the comfort of an armchair. If you care about garden birds, why not join Garden BirdWatch and tell us what happens in your own personal nature reserve?

  • You can also contribute further to the Bird Atlas by looking out for birds in your local area. We’re particularly interested in species such as Tawny Owl, Barn Owl, Kingfisher and, in the winter, we are keen to receive records of Siskin, Goldfinch and Blackcap.

If you have further queries please e-mail