Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 22, 2019



My attention has been drawn a few times, just recently, to the twittering overhead of bands of Swallows.  They seem to be, or so one might fancy, a meeting of family groups, with a mixture of full adults resplendent with their long, forked tail feathers and juvenile birds yet to grow these most distinctive, ‘swallow-esque’ appendages.

Come late summer and these gatherings seem to be made with a certain air of migratory intent.  The mind wanders and I find myself thinking about these young birds and the feat they are soon to undertake.  One must of course be cautious when attemping to superimpose our own reasoning onto the behaviour of other animals, but it is diffucult not consider the ‘knowledge’ of a journey of such magnitude as the swallows take on twice each year and the bearing that this may have on the birds in question.  And with the young birds having no direct experience of it, do they have any inkling at all of the enormity of the task ahead of them?  It is a task, after all, that may require them to make a 9500km (6000mile) journey in not too much more than a month. Is it just as well for them if they are unaware of it?  ‘Ignorance is bliss’, and all that.

‘Direct experience’ may not be required for them to know that something big is about to take place.  Benjamin Kidd (1858-1916) wrote of a Cuckoo he had reared from the egg and how when the time for migration was upon it the bird (which had never known another of its own kind) would for periods of time begin to quiver and fan its wings, behaviour which would eventually escalate until the bird “became lost in a kind of trance” and “locked in the passion of that sense by which the movement of flight was being stimulated.

It is all some food for thought for sure and does much to remind us of the natural wonder that is migration, something that still puzzles and challenges us to know more about it.

Swallow at nest (scaled)

A Swallow (Hirundo rustica) making use of an artificial nest site in Norfolk.

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