ES Views: Wild London: Swallows are flying back from Africa

Swallows are on their way back to London from sub-Saharan Africa

As spring gets under way, swallows are returning to London from sub-Saharan Africa. Their long-haul flights can take them across deserts, mountains and seas, so the capital provides a very welcome fuel stop.

You can identify swallows by their markedly long tail feathers, which form two long streamers behind the bird. Look also for their deeply coloured rusty-red throats and white chests, beneath a steely blue overcoat. Head to any large stretch of fresh water during late April and May and you are likely to see them darting over the water, taking midges and mosquitoes from the air. They can even drink on the wing, skimming the water’s surface and scooping up water with their beaks.

Swallow numbers have been in decline recently, probably due to changes in agricultural practices. Large swathes of wildlife-friendly grazing pasture have been lost and pesticides have decimated insect populations, a staple food source for swallows and many other birds.

Swallows have adapted to nesting beneath the eaves of houses, using mud and saliva to build cup-shaped nests under the edges of roofs. Most modern architecture isn’t swallow-friendly but the capital still provides some top-notch places to enjoy these acrobatic masters of the air as they pass through London to the countryside.

Check out this weekend’s wildlife festival at Woodberry Wetlands, where a few early swallows are already hunting over the reed beds, or head to Ruislip Lido or Brent Reservoir. As the swallows arrive, they can also be seen skimming the Thames in west London and over Pen Ponds at Richmond Park.

Other great locations include Wimbledon Common, Foots Cray Meadows and Bushy Park, where traditional buildings such as stable blocks and barns still provide places for the swallows to nest and breed in safety.


The London Wildlife Trust campaigns to protect the capital's wildlife and wild spaces. It is backed by Sir David Attenborough, President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts.