The old saying that "one swallow doesn't make a summer" has its own equivalent in France, which says spring instead of summer. But it is no longer true on two counts: swallows are disappearing and there is no longer a true spring.
We still have time to do something about it and see these lively noisy birds again welcoming the good weather.
However, in fewer than 15 years, 36 per cent of the swallows and 84 per cent of the house martins, the two most common species, have disappeared from France.
Pesticides have eliminated or poisoned the insects on which they feed and, if you look across the country, you can see that the vast open grassy lands have disappeared, hedges have been grubbed up and drainage has been increased, which have all led led to a reduction in insect numbers.
Now swallows do not catch enough to feed their chicks. But that refers only to the swallows that reach France. Each year 50 per cent of them die in the migration, during which they fly up to 10,000km.
This figure can only get worse as the Sahara grow larger and desertification intensifies.
At the same time, global warming means that some migratory species are staying in France throughout the winter, notably in Brittany.
What can we do for the swallows?
THEY traditionally build their nests inside old buildings and barns or under the eaves, but more and more people are closing off their access. You can see that for yourself with the number of buildings that have been turned into airtight secondary homes.
To help the birds, you have the option of making sure you don't close off all access to your buildings and outbuildings, or put up nest boxes. People used to accept nature for what it was; however, today we are less tolerant of the small inconveniences of living cheek by jowl with wild animals, birds and insects.
If you are bothered by swallows leaving their droppings under your window or on your window sill, then simply lay down a piece of wood. This has two advantages: it will collect all the droppings and you can also reap the benefit because they make an excellent fertiliser for your garden.
Clean living is hard for birds to live with
THE unfortunate mania for tidying everything and everywhere, and having clean surfaces, has seen the end of the dirt roads that criss-crossed the country and also the decline of muddy areas, which is unfortunate for the swallow as they builds their nests with mud.
Some wildlife-lovers try to help by creating mudbaths in their gardens in dry periods; the birds appreciate it by coming back.
You face €9,000 fine for destroying nests
FEAR over bird flu has also led to some people resorting to destroying swallows nests, although they should have been aware that bird flu is not carried by wild birds, but by birds kept cooped up and tightly packed in cages.
There is nothing to fear from swallows. More to the point, the five species of swallow in France (swallow or barn swallow, house martin, sand martin, crag martin and red-rumped swallow) are all protected by law and the destruction of nests could cost a €9,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
Swallows weigh about 20g and will eat its own bodyweight in flying insects each day, so they are natural insecticides, free and non-polluting. For that reason alone, we should respect them.
What can you do if you find an injured swallow?
IF YOU find a swallow on the ground, it will either be an adult that has been weakened by a poor summer, an injured bird (with broken bones or not) perhaps that has hit an obstacle, a chick that has fallen from the nest or a fledgling that can fly but has lost its parents.
In general, a broken wing cannot be fixed, because the bones are too small to be manipulated. However, if you find a swallow on the ground that seems otherwise unharmed, do not just throw it into the air to give it a help in flying again, as some people say. Rather place it on a high ledge or window sill, and wait at a distance to see if it flies off.
Birds that are only slightly stunned usually recover quickly. Swifts are often confused with swallows, but they are much less well adapted to being on the ground and often cannot fly from the ground even when in the best of health.
Putting them on a window sill helps them and gives them a chance to fly. A bird that is not injured can be fed with mealworms or moth larvae. As a short-term measure, you can feed it minced beef, but under no circumstances should you give bread that has been soaked in milk.
It is best to get the bird back into nature as soon as possible. For a young bird, even if it can fly, it is still better to wait until it can get the mealworms for itself, otherwise it will remain dependent on you to give it food.