The Great Journey of the Swallow

At this time of the year all across England it’s not unusual to see swallows diving and darting effortlessly through the air, turning on a sixpence to catch a helpless insect. Most people know they have come over from Africa, but how and why do such a huge number of swallows make this effort each year?

It always staggers me to discover that such a small bird can fly 8000 miles from southern Africa; this means flying 200 miles a day, averaging 6 weeks of virtually non-stop flying time, only stopping briefly to catch food and rest in large flocks at reed-beds. The birds reach the UK by travelling from east Africa into Spain via Morocco, then from Spain to western France before reaching Great Britain. Then, several months later they repeat this same journey back to Africa in September/October.


So why do swallows migrate when such a long journey could likely lead to starvation, death from storms, predators and exhaustion?


Well the simple answer is to find food. In the UK summer there is a bountiful supply of small insects, and harvest time produces even more for the hoards of swallows to feast upon. In the winter they fly back because there are fewer insects due to the changing climate we all know too well, damp, cold, rainy… not ideal if you are an insect.

Why don’t they just stay in southern Africa where there is a constant supply of insects? It is believed that this is due to there being a higher number of predators, so they fly to the UK to reduce the threat to themselves and to the young that they need to raise. For swallows, risking their lives on a long flight is often better than the high chance of fatality and reduced reproductive success that could occur if they stay put.

Don’t forget that as well as swallows there are many other migrants from Africa that visit the UK in the summer, so keep an eye out for blackcaps, chiffchaffs, willow warblers, swifts, house martins sand martins and the infamous cuckoo.