Here’s how 7 iconic migratory bird species spent spring and summer
This article is part of our Spring Alive Program, which aims to inspire and educate children in Africa and Eurasia about the wonders of nature and bird migration. The 2021 Spring Alive season was made possible by the continued support of HeidelbergCement.
At the moment, many migratory birds are returning to Africa for a well-deserved rest after the intense activity of the breeding season. They will use the months to come to molt their old feathers and grow shiny new plumage to impress next year’s mate. They’ll also eat as much as they can, building up their fat reserves before heading out again next spring to start the process all over again.
The Spring Alive season for Africa is about to begin and we are delighted to welcome two new countries to our network: Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. Across the continent, teachers, parents and volunteers will educate children about birds and nature with our seven Spring Alive focal species. Even if these birds breed in Europe, they could not do so without the rest, warmth and food that Africa provides them. By keeping them safe while they are here, we can help them continue the important nesting work next year.
The nesting habits of Spring Alive species are as varied as the birds themselves. Here’s a look at what they did in the spring and summer:
Subscribe to our newsletter!
1. White Stork – a penthouse apartment
The white stork is not afraid to build its nest near humans, often placing them high up on telegraph poles, church roofs, or even houses. Male white storks return to the same nest every year, increasing its height until it can reach two meters. Their nests are so large that small birds such as sparrows and starlings often nest on the sides of these towering structures, creating a multi-story apartment building.
Today, Europe has a network of “stork villages” where storks are not only protected, but celebrated by humans. The Cheshinovo-Obleshevo district in North Macedonia holds annual “Stork Day” festivities that draw crowds. The Macedonian Ecological Society (partner BirdLife) is working with energy companies in the region to reshape dangerous power lines that risk electrocuting nesting storks, and the district has even updated its coat of arms to feature the white stork.
2. Collared Sand Martin – life underground
The stereotypical bird’s nest is made of twigs, but the Collared Sand Swallow digs deep burrows in the sandy shores of rivers, lakes, or coastal cliffs. They like to nest in large groups ranging from twelve to several hundred pairs, and their tunnels can reach over a meter long!
Sadly, in modern times we humans have altered our waterways, putting in place flood control and erosion control structures, and these natural cliffs are disappearing. Today, quarries are one of the few remaining habitats where they can establish a colony. But quarries are also exploited landscapes that constantly change as new areas are dug. Our sponsor HeidelbergCement solves this problem by attracting birds to the cliffs in unused areas of the quarry and making sure they keep their machines at a safe distance.
3. Common Plover – hidden in plain sight
Most birds like to build their nests in a safe place, but Ringed Plover has another strategy. They lay their eggs right on the beach, barely bothering to build a nest. Instead, the eggs are perfectly camouflaged to look like pebbles. Even the chicks, when they hatch, are gray and speckled like the stony pebbles on the shore. If a predator manages to sniff the nest, the parents have yet another trick up their sleeve: they stagger away from the nest, screaming and feigning a broken wing, pulling the predator towards them.
Unfortunately, the Plover’s population is in decline due to pollution or the drying up of wetlands to make way for agriculture, which occurs at every stage of its migratory journey. The Ghana Wildlife Society (BirdLife Partner) runs school birding trips to local wetlands, using the Common Plover as an ambassador of these vital habitats.
4. Barn swallow – carved to perfection
Barn Swallows used to nest in caves, but today they nest almost exclusively in small spaces under the roofs of houses, churches, and – unsurprisingly – barns. Here, they build their distinctive cup-shaped nests from hundreds of tiny mudballs that they collect in their beaks. Unfortunately, modern buildings have fewer suitable holes for birds. In addition, there is sometimes a lack of mud to build the nests, especially in urban areas or in unusually dry weather.
To combat this, Spring Alive is running workshops across Europe on how to create artificial nests. Our Serbian company, bird protection and study partner of Serbia, even employed artists from a local ceramics museum to train families in the best techniques for making these clay houses.
5. Common cuckoo – a flying visit
The common cuckoo’s habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds is notorious around the world, so much so that the word “cuckoo” has become synonymous with unwanted intruders. The disappointment begins with the adult female, whose plumage mimics that of the dreaded Eurasian hawk. This scares off other birds, allowing it to lay its eggs in their nests without being challenged. In this way, the female can visit up to 50 nests in a single breeding season.
As a species, the common cuckoo can target over a hundred different bird species, including the reed warbler, magpie, and European robin. However, females tend to specialize in targeting a single species, laying eggs of the same color and pattern as their host’s.
The similarities end when the chick hatches. This baby grows and grows rapidly, pushing real eggs and chicks out of the nest and making a loud call that mimics the sound of an entire nest full of chicks begging to be fed. It may sound shocking, but one should not forget that cuckoos do not understand that they are cheating on other birds. They developed this strategy because it helps their species survive.
Despite this, the common cuckoo population is now in decline and scientists around the world are tagging the species by satellite to understand the cause. The first cuckoo clock to be tagged by the Beijing Cuckoo Project (a collaboration between several conservation organizations, including BirdLife) was named “Flappy McFlapperson” by local schoolchildren. Flappy rose to world fame, inspiring thousands of followers with her incredible journey from China to Africa.
6. Common Swift – life on the wing
The Common Swift spends most of its life in the air and never lands on the ground. You could be forgiven for thinking that it has a hard time finding nesting material, but it isn’t. This ingenious master of the skies builds his nests with anything that can be picked up on the wing, including feathers, straw, hay and seeds, stuck together with his own saliva.
Swifts are pairs for life, meeting the same mate each year after traveling thousands of kilometers from their wintering grounds. We humans also love it when they arrive, with their streamlined figure and shrill cry heralding the start of spring. World Swift Day takes place on the 7the in June of each year, and the town of Alange in Spain hosts its own Swift festival to celebrate the birds.
The Spring Alive partnership organization offers tutorials on how to build artificial nesting boxes to help these birds – including this excellent instructional video from BirdLife Malta. Our SEO / BirdLife partner even has its own recovery center to help baby swifts who jump out of the nest prematurely during increasingly frequent heat waves.
7. European bee-eater – a date for dinner
What kind of food would you eat on your perfect date? Curry? Pizza? Sushi? Or how about a delicious dead wasp? Don’t worry, your date took off its sting by hitting it against a hard rock …
Fortunately, for the female European bee-eater, this is the perfect way to win her heart. During courtship, the male will impress the female with his hunting prowess, laying a series of bees, wasps, hornets, dragonflies and even butterflies at his feet. And while the male seems to do most of the work early in the relationship, when the eggs are laid, the couple also share the chores, taking turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks in their sandy cliff-side burrow. In fact, their next door neighbors in the colony could help too!
These species may all be done breeding, but Africa also has many resident bird species that breed year round, including the Gray Go-away Bird. Therefore, it is always important to keep abreast of this year’s Spring Alive theme: “How Should We Protect Bird Nests?” “. From growing your garden to building a birdhouse, there are many simple steps you can take to help your local birds raise their chicks safely.