Swallows in Gilgit

Appearance of these little birds signals a newness of hope amid sorrow and chaos

Image courtesy: Imran Shah

Single flicks of the wrist, dots of a black Chinese ink brush in a grand, landscape painting, they are dancing specks that evoke little flurries of joy. Our swallows have arrived today in Gilgit. Swooping, gliding, frolicking in flocks of delight, they seem to greet us after their migrations.

“True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings,” Shakespeare tells us. And indeed, this sight swooping into our valley cleanses the sadness of the heart of the last week. Bereft of departed friends, life lost in a plane crash, to Covid, old age, and a household member recovering from a heart attack, a newness of hope is signalled by the appearance of these barn swallows or Hirundo rustica as they are known in ornithology.

One just cannot resist the joy and lightness that these little birds bring to the season. It is merely a question of letting them carry your heart on their swallow’s wings. They come to us from southern Pakistan and have arrived in these Karakoram mountain valleys to court and breed, before returning south as the first cooling winds will arrive in October. While migrating, they tend to fly over open areas, often near water or along mountain ridges just like the valley across our home. Barn swallows generally nest at lower altitudes, valley bottoms and caves and can be told apart from swifts that are similar but monochromatic black and white birds.

Being very adaptable, swallows can nest anywhere with open areas for foraging the insects that they love, a water source, and a sheltered ledge. They seek out open habitats of all types, including agricultural fields, and are commonly found in barns or other outbuildings. They will also build nests under bridges, the eaves of old houses, as well as in rock caves. We will be on the lookout as we go for walks and be sure to peer under eaves and ledges of our neighbours’ houses.

Barn swallows are small birds of a metallic blue-black colour above and pale beige below. They have russet feathers on their throat and forehead and have a long, deeply forked tail that makes them a distinct sight. They are about 15 cm long, with a wingspan of 32cm and weigh around 20 grams or about the weight of a tea biscuit. Males and females are similar in appearance, though females tend to be less vibrantly coloured and have shorter outer tail-streamers.

Believe it or not, swallows have asymmetry of physical characteristics just like we do – a head too large, or limbs shorter than average. In barn swallows, these imperfections tend to be transmitted to the young in distinct parent to offspring patterns. Tail asymmetry tends to pass from father to son and from mother to daughter.

Our swallows are socially monogamous, pairing with one member of the opposite sex for each breeding season. However, ornithologists report that mating beyond the pair is common, so fidelity in the pair is not really exclusive. Breeding pairs form each spring after arrival in the breeding grounds in Gilgit. The image shown in this column is from Chinar Bagh near the Gilgit river. Pairs re-form each spring, though those couples that have nested together successfully may mate together for several years. The courtship display is a show enacted by the males who attract females by spreading their tails to display them and singing.

Interestingly, scientists have documented that female barn swallows select their mates for symmetrical wings and tails in potential mates. Male swallows with greater body symmetry tend to acquire mates more quickly than do asymmetric males, so physical beauty and perfection of form is a real asset in these birds as it is in our species.

Barn swallows usually breed between May and August, but this varies greatly with the location as they migrate to the western Himalayan hills and the Karakorams. They usually raise two broods of chicks each summer and both birds of a pair make the nest together.

Many of us will be familiar with pictures and drawings from our childhood picture books of swallow nests that form a neat cup shape cleaving to man-made structures. They build their nest shell of mud, and line it with grass and feathers, laying 3 to 7 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs faithfully until they hatch in a fortnight and continue to care for the chicks for up to a week after fledging into early forays of flight. Feeding them and leading them back to the nest to sleep remains the parental duty for quite a while. The young then begin to make journeys to other barn swallow colonies until they are ready to breed themselves, and that will all happen in the very first summer season of their lives.

Swooping down midway in valley heights, flocks catch insects and glide on breezes, our swallows pass through in mid-afternoon, reminding us that hope must be allowed to fly on swallow’s wings, swift and light as the passage of time.

The writer is a Lahore-based ecologist

Swallows in Gilgit