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The House Martin { Birds of Europe}

Updated on November 3, 2014

House Martin Delchion urbanicum



The House martin Delchion urbica,belongs to the order of birds known as the passeriformes {perching birds} and the family Hirunindae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Delchion,froman anagram of Chelidon which derives from the Greek Khelidon -a swallow, the specific name of urbica derives from the Latin urbis a city.

In the UK they are currently on the Amber list of conservation concern { losses of between 25-50%} 2014.{ there is an estimated population of 510,000 birds in summer {2014}.} over the last forty years or so. However, recent figures suggest the decline in the UK is now more than 50% and if this is confirmed it will be placed on the Red list of conservation concern. So concerned are the British Trust for ornithology {BTO} is currently organizing a survey of House Martins which will consist of two elements.

The first element will be a random 'square ' survey which will involve volunteers across the UK surveying 1-km squares and mapping nesting sites. This survey will provide a robust UK population estimate which will act as a baseline against which future changes can be measured. The second element, the Nest Monitoring Study which will begin 2016,will involve an observation of nests. This nest monitoring study will give the BTO important information about the site locations,arrival dates,time of breeding,number of breeding attempts and breeding success.

The reasons for the declines are unclear and it is hoped by the BTO that the study will increase their knowledge and be able to stop the bird declining further and to keep them off the Red list of conservation concern. The species is listed by Birdlife International as being Globally Threatened using International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria. In Ireland they are also Amber listed due to European declines although it is a common summer visitor there {Source BTO}.

In Europe they are of 3 concern,most not in Europe declining. The estimated population in Europe is between 9.1 million and twenty two million pairs. The populations vary from country to country there follows a few examples.

The population in Albania is estimated between 40,000 and 80,000 Breeding pairs {BP} , Belgium 28,000 and 51,000 BP. Croatia 500,000 and one million BP.France 400,000 and 1,600,000 BP.Germany 820,000,and 1,400.000 BP, Portugal 100,000 and 1 million BP,Spain,1,450,000 and 2,160,000 BP. Turkey 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 BP and Ukraine between 400,000,and 580,000 BP.

The Gaelic name for the bird Gobblan-taighe, the Welsh-Gwennol y Bindo and the Irish-Gabhl n Binne

Taken in Iceland.
Taken in Iceland. | Source

What are Hirundines ?

The Hirundinidae is a family of passerine birds which consists of the Swallows and Martins. They are incredible flyers catching all their food on the wing with excellent aerial displays. The family is split into two sub-families the Pseudochelidoninae, the River Martins and Hirundininae all other Swallows and Martins.

There is approximately 83 species in 19 genera. The European Swallows and Martins are migratory making amazing journeys to and from their wintering grounds in Africa. The have short bills,but strong jaws and and a wide gape. The wings are long and pointed.

Here we look at the House Martin,Delchion urbica sometimes the specific name is spelt as urbicum.. As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the House Martin

The adult House Martin has the upper parts to the rump a glossy blue black. The rump itself and the inner tail coverts and under parts are white. { the rump is very conspicuous in flight} The wings and tail are brownish black slightly tinted with green. The bill is black.

The feet are horn -yellowish ,but densely covered by fine white feathering. The tail is forked.

The female is similar and impossible to tell apart in the field. Apart from the colouring the House martin can be told from the Swallow by the absence of long tail streamers to the tail feathers.

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Apart from the colouring the House Martin lacks the long tail streamers of the Barn Swallow
Apart from the colouring the House Martin lacks the long tail streamers of the Barn Swallow | Source

House martins Courtesy of Pit Konjac Standard You tube License

Juvenile on the ground


Background and historical information

The pretty twittering of an House Martin over your window is a pleasant way to be awakened on a sunny spring morning. According to Butler 1898, the House Martin in its habit much resembles the Barn Swallow, but " Why Seebohm went out of his way to assert its legs are too short to allow it to walk I do not understand. For it can not only walk,but run nimbly for short distances,without erecting its wings,though if it is in a hurry,it uses its wings to assist in it taking surprising leaps"

The call note of the House Martin is a thin whistled sound while the song is a modulated twittering. Its diet consists wholly of insects obtained on the wing.

HOUSE MARTIN AND CAPTIVITY---- It seems that even the House martin has been kept in captivity in former times when it was legal to do so. I return again to the notes of Butler who reveals his notes on the House martin in captivity.he says-- " In confinement it will readily eat the usual soft food. In the first week of July 1891, my colleague, Mr. W.R. Ogilvie Grant,obtained a nest of four House Martins,about a week old,and gave them to me. Following the mistaken notice of many aviculturists I had first fed theseyoung birds partly upon raw rump steaks finely minced, but also gave them a mixture of carefully selected ant's cocoons,and preserved yolk of egg,ground up in a mortar with maizena wafers, the whole carefully mixed together and slightly dampened. Upon this diet all four attained their full size,after which they refused the raw meat, but continued to eat the mixture greedily.

" I kept these birds in a basket filled with hay,and, several times each day they were taken out and encouraged to fly about the room. But now began to object to return to the close confinement of their basket,therefore I purchased a large cage,hung up a cocoa -nut nest lined with flannel in one corner, and taught them to return to it every evening or whenever they appeared to feel the cold.

" At the end of the month the Martins were able to feed themselves,and, like all good Hirundinidae when accustomed to soft food they ate far more than was good for them. I now tried to change their diet,giving 'Abraham's Food for Nightingales', damped ant's cocoons,cut up meal worms and flies, but it was of no use, for the three of them soon died of plethora and, probably, in part,owing to insufficient exercise,although we did our best to encourage them to exert themselves in various ways.

" One of our plans was to put all four on the ground at one end of the room, then run up to the other end and call them.This was the single for a most comical race, in which at first they ran at a surprising speed though very awkwardly, but, as they became excited in the race, used their wings,and finished with a series of astounding leaps,finally flying on to out arms,and either running up our sleeves, nestling down in the hollowed palms of our hands, or perching on our shoulders..

" My son often used to hold one up in his hand,and it invariably sprang up and pecked his nose, but only one of the four would do this.. My fourth bird lived with us until the morning of September the 18th,and, became a general pet. His cage was kept in a small spare room, the wire door was usually kept open,so he could go out and in at pleasure. Everyday,as soon as I returned from town, I used to run up and call him, and he would at once fly to me and nestle down in my hand. Towards the end of his life he appeared to feel the cold, and usually retired early to his cocoa nest, but he generally tumbled out as soon as he heard my footstep.

" Two days before he died his cage door was shut and he had got into his snuggery, but I called out. In a moment hid head popped out and he sprang to the cage door. I opened it, stepped back to the end of the room and called him, and he immediately flew across as usual. I do not think I was ever more fond of a pet than I was of this House Martin,and I felt his death acutely, but,nevertheless,I do not recommend this species as a cage bird, its wings are so long, and its legs so short, that the primaries constantly get dragged through the dirt and need frequently cleansing, which tends to give the birds cold. A long and well warmed corridor would make a suitable aviary for them."

House martin and barn swallow collecting mud for their nest. Courtesy of MOS CO Czech Republic Standard You Tube License

Nest and Eggs

" Would I a house for happiness erect,

Nature alone would be the architect" { Cowley}

Each nest constructed by these industrious birds takes one thousand + of beak sized mud pellets to complete. They traditionally built their mud nests on cliff faces. By the 19th century they started making use of buildings allowing them to expand their range. By the 1900's they had all but abandoned their traditional sites in favour of close contact with humans.

They are colonial nester's taking advantage of under the eaves and outer walls of buildings or even sheds. There are usually four to five nests,although many more may occur together. The breeding season runs from May to August when insects are abundant. However, late nests may have chicks in as late as September.

The nest itself is made by using the mud pellets as mentioned above , mixed with grasses and it is usually lined with feathers and vegetable fibres. It takes about to weeks to complete, however, if they are repairing an existing nest this will only take a few days.

Eggs of the House Martin


Nest and Eggs continued

Four or five eggs are laid at daily intervals,sometimes delayed by bad weather. The eggs are incubated for between fourteen and sixteen days and the chicks hatch together. The female will brood them for a week or so while the chicks are naked and vulnerable. Both parents feed them.

These historical notes were recorded in the 'Naturalist' { volume one pages 23-24} , by George B Clarke of Woburn, Bedfordshire.

" In the summer of 1849 a pair of martins built their nest in an archway at Woburn Abbey,Bedfordshire, and as soon as they had completed the building of it and had lined it, a Sparrow took possession of it. Although the Martins tried several times to eject him, they were unsuccessful, but they,nothing daunting,leaving him in full possession ,flew off to scour the neighbourhood for help,and returned with in a short time with about thirty or forty Martins who dragged the unfortunate sparrow out ,took him to the grassland opposite,'called a circle' and here all fell on him and killed him" Then the author adds { a little piously} " This was related to me by an eye witness, a day or two after the occurrence took place"

Babies in the nest


Young birds and threats

The young birds are smokey brown above, the rump and underparts a sordid white. The inner most secondaries tipped,and most quills edged with white. The tail is shorter and less forked.

While Martins are rarely affected by predators House sparrows frequently damage or take over nests and attack both young and eggs. {also see introduction above}.

After the breeding season both young and older birds gather in numbers on telegraph wires and other structures no doubt contemplating their long journey back to Africa.

House Martins gathering on the wires

Taken in the Czech republic . Post breeding gathering.
Taken in the Czech republic . Post breeding gathering. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, it will seem a long time before I see the Martins back with us from Africa. Sand Martins {late March}, the House Martins {late April}, they sure are missed. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Martins and swallows are both remarkable birds, being from the swallow clan. They are great helpers in removing annoying populations like the mosquito and gnat. I have great respect for them, and have found them very fascinating.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, I am glad to have revived your memory of these birds, and as always I have to thank you for kind and appreciated comments,and the votes. Best wishes to you..


      Hi, all members of this family are very similar and the Lesser striped swallow[Which I confess I am not familiar with} sounds a typical member. The experiences of keeping these birds was not an account of my personal keeping, but of past ornithologists who kept them when it was perfectly legal to do so. And I agree with you, I am not a fan of keeping birds or any animal in captivity,unless it is to save a species that is endangered. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes top you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful bird and from the family of Swallows. I have seen these nests in many homes. When I saw the photos of the nests it immediately refreshed my memory on the Swallows. A very interesting way of letting us know about these birds and more. Voted up, interesting and useful

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      5 years ago from Norfolk

      I am much more familiar with the Lesser Striped Swallows which would announce their arrival each year in South Africa when they arrived to build a nest under the eaves of our house. They looked similar to this bird and seemed to have similar habits as the house martin above - but then there are differences between swifts, house matins and swallows as I am sure you will know. I recall a blue headed variety in France, much more recently which would do the same thing - build a mud nest under the eaves of the house - though I don't recall their name! I loved reading your experience of rearing these birds though I confess I am not a fan of keeping birds in captivity. Nevertheless it certainly gave you a close up view of their lives and provided a very interesting hub - thanks for sharing.


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