Bird stories

I do so love this time of the year. Whether it’s hailing or basking in sunshine, each day is full of little signs that the best is yet to come: The fat buds on the trees, the hedgerows lined with the promise of bluebells and foxgloves, the blackthorn sporting its delicate white flowers, the bright green unfurling of ferns in the woods, the heady smell of wild garlic and triple-cornered leeks. The taste of wild sorrel. Every day the land gets lusher, going from stark and bare to full blown diva. Every little change is a sign that the big event of the year – summer is on its way.

Of all the signs in West Cork, none is more potent than a small swooping squiggle high in the sky. The first time I see it, sometime around mid to the end of April, my heart skips a beat. The French have a saying: ‘L’Hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps’, which literally translates as ‘One swallow does not make the spring’, but which  actually means that just because you’ve seen one swallow does not mean that summer has arrived. In other words, it’s no big deal…

Semantics aside, I beg to differ. Seeing one swallow in West Cork is cause for celebration. The first ones are usually spotted on the coast about ten days before getting to my house. By the time they get to us these little birds have made an arduous four-to-six-week, 10,000km journey from southern Africa to our shores and back to the very nest they left last Autumn. It has been my pleasure over the years to spot swallows at various points in their migration. On a bus going north from Malaga to Granada, I watched flocks of swallows racing across the landscape and into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Once while relaxing poolside in Tunisia, I was delighted to see the garden crowded with swallows settling down for a rest. It amused me to think that these same birds might end up in my garage.

We saw our first swallow this week. He didn’t hang around (the first ones are always male). This was not one of our house swallows. This guy was on a mission North, probably headed back to Donegal. Shortly afterwards my daughter called with the news that loads of swallows had been spotted out by Owenahincha. The weather has been rather dreadful for the past few days, but I don’t care. Knowing that the swallows are on their way makes it feel like we’ve finally turned the corner.

As far as I’m concerned, the swallows are welcome to nest in the garage. Bird poop is a problem, but one I’m willing to put up with. The swallows will provide entertainment for the next five months; swooping in and out of the garage, chasing the cat, or dive bombing crows and magpies. In the summer I always announce myself loudly when stepping into the garage to give them fair warning and avoid being targeted. The swallows fill the sky with joy. I’ve seen them chase off a sparrowhawk for miles across the valley. I’ve also watched with delight as they perform aerial acrobatics over the front field on a summer’s evening or teach their young to fly off the bathroom roof. 

Speaking of the bathroom roof, we have a much less welcome tenant moving in there this year. For a number of years, I have not only welcomed swallows in the garage. I have also tolerated starlings nesting in the bathroom roof. I like lying in the bath and hearing the hatchlings shrieking above me as they are fed and then going quiet as the parent leaves, only to start up again when a parent returns. But no good deed goes unpunished and this year the starlings got evicted and the jackdaws moved in. Like any property that has suffered gentrification, my bathroom roof has been acquired by developers profiting from the efforts of lower ranked tenants who worked hard to better their homes only to find themselves priced out of the neighbourhood.

Jackdaws are bigger than starlings and have bigger home dreams. They immediately started ripping out the roof facia to extend the hole that the starlings had made. They are presently undertaking some impressive home renovations if the number of dropped sticks is anything to go by. There is a sizable pile under the eaves every day. In fairness the jackdaws don’t have to go far to get top notch material for their DIY projects. A lovely pile of suitably sized apple tree cuttings sits only a few metres away. I imagine it’s like having IKEA on your doorstep.

We’ll have to do something about them eventually, (f nothing else their giant nest is a fire hazard) but I’ll probably wait until they’ve reared their young. It’s too much fun to sit and watch them working away, and I’m looking forward to see how the swallows will react once they get home and realise they have big new noisy neighbours upstairs.

Tina Pisco

Tina Pisco is a best-selling author, who has lived in West Cork, Ireland for the past twenty years.

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