Rosa’s Secret

I spent a good part of my day today filming the Martins. Not a lot is happening. One bird is staying in the nest a lot and I think they have eggs but no evidence of new life yet.

Much as I want to watch the Martins this year it is very hard to ignore the other beautiful birds that are nesting just below.

Barn Swallows mate for life and they return to their old nests, sometimes. I am just going to believe that these are the same birds that left here last September, the birds that gave me so much enjoyment last year.

So here is a quick recap of what happened last year.

Fred and Rosa had three broods. The first was five birds and I watched and filmed them grow in the nest.

Barn SwallowsI was able to watch them take their first flights and then they were gone.

Barn SwallowsThe second brood was not so successful. They all died and Rosa was distraught.

There was a call that she had made when she was encouraging her chicks to take their first flight. Calling her babies to her. I had previously only heard this on the day that they fledged but now it became her constant lament. It went on for about two weeks and she just cried all of the time.

There was a problem. I had picked up two dead chicks from under the nest and removed them. It soon became apparent (from the smell) that there was at least one more still in the nest that she couldn’t throw out. The nest was uninhabitable.

They went to work and they built a new nest on the opposite side of the passage.

Barn SwallowRosa had her third brood and it was just one chick. I don’t know if this was the right thing to do but she was happy again and it was so nice to see her happy and not to have to listen to her constant wailing. I think that Fred was relieved too.

The problem with a third brood is that even the second brood has a hard time with the migration, they have less time to prepare than the first brood. Her single chick fledged and that was in September and they all left just days after he had learned to fly.

I have since learned that not all of the SwallowsΒ go all of the way to South Africa. The RSPB report that a significant minority overwinter in Southern Europe so maybe he made it, we will never know.

She’s back.

And unlike the Martins she has got something in her nest. It is too little to see yet…

The first bird that you see on the nest is the female, that is Rosa. The second bird is Fred. The white sac that Fred removes from the nest is the evidence that they have at least one egg hatched.


Who’s a clever girl then?

You should really watch this next video full screen, just to see Rosa’s reaction to her hatchling.


Fred however is not so perfect.

The birds separate during the migration and in Rosa’s absence Fred has picked up a little something. I don’t think Rosa has noticed yet.

Again go full screen to see what is running around on Fred’s back.


Most birds suffer from some sort of ectoparasite. Most of them are so small that you wouldn’t know to look at the bird. These are quite big and Fred is going to have some trouble keeping them a secret from Rosa.

I know that it is a bit “yuk” but we are scientists and we have to observe these things and learn from them πŸ™‚

BTW I don’t know what they are yet. If anybody does please tell me.

Edit (The next day): I think that I may have identified the parasite as Louse flies,Β Crataerina hirundinis and I am adding tags to this post in the hope of drawing more authoritative comment πŸ™‚

29 thoughts on “Rosa’s Secret”

    1. Thank you Maureen πŸ™‚ No it isn’t. It is important to me that the camera I use is accessible to many people. I don’t want to set up with twenty thousand dollars worth of kit and say, “Hey look what I’ve got.” But I do love the work that some people can create with the right equipment. My camera is not the cheapest. It is a Panasonic FZ200 which you can pick up for about Β£300 on line. I could have done this with my old FZ50 or pretty well any camera with a video capacity. It is more about having the opportunity and technique. I don’t want to disturb the birds on the nest so I am setting my camera on a tripod (any old tripod) turning the video on and walking away. The birds don’t seem to notice the camera. Every fifteen minutes or so I go down and restart the video just so that I get it in chunks. I maybe record them for an hour to get the few seconds when Fred actually takes the poop out of the nest. The editing is time consuming and I watch a lot of dumb video πŸ™‚

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  1. Enjoyment until parasites…thanks for the warning. I don’t know what they are but they are fascinating and obviously know where Fred’s beak can reach. Can’t wait to see the hatchlings…

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    1. Thank you Virginia πŸ™‚ Even if Fred can’t reach them you would think that Rosa could, Fred is carrying around a nutritious banquet for her new hatchlings but I think that I can see the problem. Swallows take their food in flight and I think that you could lay a magnificent table in front of them and they would still starve if it didn’t fly.

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      1. Yes, my sister wants to come back as a swallow…she likes the idea of flying around with her mouth open and eating all day. I also love watching them when my husband mows the lawn, they swoop down behind him, collecting whatever pops into their mouth.

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    1. Thank you Clare πŸ™‚ I may be closing in on them. I think that these may be Louse Flies (from looking at photographs the scale looks about right) If that is the case then they are Crataerina hirundinis. We only have three European species of Crataerina and this is the one that uses House Martins and Swallows as it’s host. Then it is a flightless blood sucker that has little noticeable effect on it’s host. I still have a lot to learn about this πŸ™‚

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  2. Such a sweet and sad story about her broods last year. Would the mate pick off bugs that the bird can’t reach themselves, or what will happen? I only knew of birds getting lice, never anything that big. It’s lovely to see the videos of them so close.

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    1. Thank you Nancy πŸ™‚ I don’t think that the mate will pick off bugs because they are not flying and she is programmed to catch food in flight. I had never seen anything this big until these videos but this is only my second year with the Swallows.

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  3. I don’t know what the parasites are, but they look much bigger than the usual bird lice or mites I am used to seeing in swallow and sparrow nests. Not pleasant but part of life and interesting in their own way. I can spend hours watching the activities of parents caring for their hatchlings. It’s very comforting! Thanks for sharing this, Colin. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thank you Jane πŸ™‚ I think that these are Louse Flies now. I have found photographs of them and they look about the right size. (Crataerina hirundinis). If so then they don’t seem to do much harm to their host. It is just something new to learn about but I think that Rosa may get mad if he gives them to her πŸ™‚

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    1. Thank you Eliza πŸ™‚ but I don’t think so just because I took quite a lot of video to get these clips and the flies were on Fred from the first moment that I saw him and they remained there.

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    1. Thank you Anne πŸ™‚ I was very lucky with those clips, I had chosen just the right time to film them. Especially the clip where Rosa is looking at her hatchling. That new baby will be little more than a huge gaping mouth as it begs for food and I think that Rosa is looking at it and mimicking what she is seeing, opening and closing her own mouth (in wonder?). If so then you can almost see the thought process, especially in the last few seconds of the clip when she perches on the edge of the nest opening and closing her mouth, then sees an insect and dives after it. She has got it! Put food in the mouth πŸ™‚

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  4. Three lovely videos, thanks very much. The archetypal bird for parasites apparently are swifts which are all alive with big horrible creepy crawlies. People who put rings on birds’ legs employ a technique with them called “Ring-and-fling” to avoid getting any on themselves.

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    1. Thank you John πŸ™‚ Yes when I started looking into it I tapped in “Swallow parasite” and got loads of information on Swifts. It is funny that they should be so infested when they hardly ever set foot on land.

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