23 Apr 2024


We hope you enjoy Welcome Swallows – personal insights and observations by David Waterhouse – a passionate naturalist, storyteller and WWF supporter – from his experiences in nature.  

David Waterhouse writes to us this month about the welcome swallow, a common beauty that is widespread across the country, so keep your eyes peeled! It flourishes in almost every type of habitat, and sometimes they even occur at sea. David is a long-term supporter and has also decided to continue his support to WWF-Australia through a gift in his Will, he hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect it.  

A visitor to the shopping precincts in Oatley or Oatley West may notice, at any season, flights of tiny, navy blue and grey birds with streamlined, forked tails. They are swallows. 

The birds are usually seen hawking above the rooftops and streets for tiny insects, or perched upright in rows on the overhead wires so that, at a distance, they resemble lines of musical notations on a stave. You may see twenty or more on one wire. They do not stay perched for long and sometimes, the whole flock will take to the air with a characteristic twittering flurry and dash about above Frederick Street or Mulga Road before perching again. 

It is a strange fact that although most people know the word ‘swallow’, few of them are able to recognise the birds when they see them. Some people may be familiar with the bird from a half-forgotten, illustrated story book or may have loved the expression, ‘One swallow does not a summer make’. But not very many could point out that those birds on the wire are Australian natives called ‘Welcome Swallows’. 

In Europe, swallows are strictly migratory and only start to appear in April, which is springtime. The sight of them flitting over the fields and rooftops is always welcome, like the cuckoo’s first call, and is the time, traditionally, to start spring cleaning. 

The first European settlers in Sydney Town soon became familiar with the local swallows which, in a remarkably short time, abandoned their traditional nesting sites on cliff ledges and in caves and took to nesting in stables or barns or beneath bridges and other structures. In the Sydney area I have only seen swallows nesting in a natural structure once, opposite Wattle Flat under a rock overhang on the Hacking River. No doubt, a few still nest in similar places. 

A pair of welcome swallows (Hirundo neoxena), native to Australia and nearby islands. © Shutterstock / AlecTrusler2015 / WWF

Some swallows living in southern Australia in the warm months do migrate further north (including all the ones in Tasmania) in autumn, but in the milder winters around Sydney, not all of them, if any, leave. Some birds will nest locally at the start of the cool weather in April and May, as well as in spring and summer. Perhaps some birds breed twice a year.

In Oatley, at least, the birds tend to nest on top of horizontal, plastic pipes in underground car parks, such as those below Oatley Village Plaza or the Coles supermarket in Mulga Road. Others nest on ledges above doorways, garage beams and in old sheds.

The nest itself is a cup-shaped structure made of mud pellets, strengthened with pieces of dried grass stems. The bowl is lined with small feathers and sometimes bits of fur. Three or four white eggs are laid and the young hatch in less than a fortnight.

When the eggs hatch, the parent birds usually throw caution to the winds as far as people passing underneath are concerned and will boldly fly in at high speed to what appears at first to be an empty nest. Then, for mere seconds, several tiny heads with wide-open mouths pop up to be fed before retracting again in the short time it takes for insect morsels to be crammed into their mouths. Instantly, the parent then flickers away and up to the sky to catch more food. Both parents feed the young almost continuously during daylight hours. Consequently, the babies grow quickly. If there is a light close by at night, the adults might continue to bring food to their young throughout the night, as Arctic Terns will do in Iceland. Up there it is dark for only a few hours in the summer months. I once saw a pair of swallows around midnight still feeding their young in the darkness at a nest built below a light on a building on North Stradbroke Island, in Queensland.

Stock image of a pair of welcome swallows perched on a branch early in the morning. © © Shutterstock / Faraz Zaidi / WWF

Walking up Mulga Road, Oatley West, one bright winter’s day, I happened to notice a swallow land on the ground, close to the big roller door of Coles supermarket docking bay. The bird took off again but soon returned. To my surprise, it scurried under the door at a spot where the bottom of the metal base was not quite flush with the concrete door. Ten seconds or so later, it flew out through a slit higher up the door. Obviously, if the door had been pulled down on an active nest inside and the parent birds had been denied access, the eggs would have gone cold or the hatched young would have starved to death. How on earth, I wondered, had the adults figured out how to get in and leave? Did they fail to nest previously, and then subsequently worked out a solution? However it happened, it was intriguing and worth filming.

A week or so later, I was walking downhill past the same arrivals bay, but saw no ingress or egress of swallows. Glancing upwards, I became aware of two adult birds and three youngsters with much shorter tails, flitting about above the road and the streetside trees, with what can only be described as reckless abandon. The family swooped and soared together, changing pace and direction in a flurry of movement, to the accompaniment of constant loud twittering voices. The adults would fly alongside a young bird and then twist with tails widely forked as they swept past to make it speed up and wildly change course, for all the world like air force instructors engaged in pilot training. I had no doubt that the adults were the same ones I had seen flying near or scurrying into the store and now, breeding duties done, they were releasing even more pent-up energy in a fit of joie de vivre.

While David is an incredible monthly contributor of his wildlife encounters, he has also decided to continue his support by leaving a gift in his Will to WWF. If you would like to support conservation initiatives into the future like David, get in touch with us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au, or find out more about including a gift to WWF-Australia in your Will.