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A whiter shade of pale


Pics courtesy of Kenny Sloan

Ciara Moynihan

The Moy River was last week graced by a bird whose plumage is capable of sending even the most seasoned twitcher into a flap. Perched on a wire fence, it blithely accepted mouthfuls of food from its doting parents, blissfully unaware of its stunning rare beauty.
Every year Ireland welcomes the arrival of swallows, their aerial acrobatics an annual celebration of the summer’s longer days and warmer climes. But this summer, we here in Mayo can boast a little more about our feathered friends than most, for the annual 10,000km migration from South Africa to their breeding grounds in this county has produced true rarity: a snow-white swallow.  
The angelic albino fledgeling was photographed by Kenny Sloan, a local amateur videographer/photographer, last week (see pics above and below article). Kenny was out salmon fishing on the Moy River at Foxford, when his eyes were drawn to a scene so unusual that he could not quite believe what he was seeing: an all-white swallow being fed on the wing by its proud parents (themselves normally coloured, with their glossy black wings and tail streamers, white undersides and red throats).
“Fishing stopped and camera was retrieved,” Kenny told The Mayo News, adding: “This is a once in a lifetime to see such an unusual bird.” That he had his camera at the ready makes him the envy of wildlife photographers everywhere.

The bird’s rarity was confirmed to The Mayo News by Lynda Huxley of GMIT, a Belcarra-based expert on swallows, house martins and swifts. Describing Kenny’s photographs as ‘quite amazing’ she added that it is indeed ‘very unusual to get albino swallows’.
“On Lough Carra, swallows roost (sleeping on the reed stems) every night from mid-July to late September,” continued Lynda, who is also a keen nature photographer. “In a good year, we can get many thousands… One year we had an albino swallow that came to the reeds every night for about a week.”
Sightings of albino swallows have also made headlines in the UK, with the BBC reporting the presence of a pure white swallow in Gloucestershire in 2015.
But before you grab your lenses and start making for the Moy, the unusual swallow family has already moved on. “After being here in Foxford for around a week, it and the other swallows have left to another area, probably where there is more insect life along the river.”
Home birds
While many of us think of our swallows as visitors, they are more accurately viewed as Irish immigrants returned. They are born and bred here, and so in truth, they are Irish birds that visit South Africa.  
Our status as a breeding ground comes with responsibilities, explained Lynda, who has already rescued and rehabilitated a brood of swallow chicks (‘a lovely little bunch’) this year, releasing them back into the wild just last week.
“The swallows’ future depends on us allowing them to nest and rear their young, and to have a healthy food source of flying insects,” she said, pointing out that maintaining this healthy food source can only be achieved ‘by not using pesticides and herbicides’, which kill off the insects on which the swallows rely.
This is especially important now. As with so many other species, swallow populations are in severe decline. Those of us who keep an eye on the sky and its winged things can attest to this anecdotally.

Swallows in crisis
The swallows’ population drop is due to the growth of the Sahara dessert, the increasingly wet Irish summers, and – depressingly – human hunters.
The Irish Examiner recently reported that on top of having to dodge nature’s predators during their epic journey from South Africa, swallows now have to ‘run the gauntlet of gunmen shooting them for sport as they cross Cyprus and Malta on the migratory flyways of the Mediterranean’.  
According to Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland, smaller numbers of swallows are returning to Ireland each spring, and the population is now ‘nowhere near’  where it used to be years ago. “Their arrival date seems to be getting earlier,” he said, “which would point to climate change having an effect on migration, and the survival of the chicks seems to be a bit lower. The Sahara desert is getting wider each year and more arid, and fewer can survive the crossing. There is nowhere for them to rest or drink or feed. They have to get across in one go, and fewer are making it each time.
“There are also lots of human hunters out in Egypt, Malta and Cyprus. They catch the birds in big numbers. A lot of it is just for fun. In [EU countries] like Malta and Cyprus, it is appalling because it is flouting EU law and affecting our migratory birds.”
Accurate figures are hard to find, but according to The Daily Mail, up to 140 million birds a year are being slaughtered as they pass through Egypt alone. They (along with millions of other small birds like swifts, golden orioles and willow warblers) are being trapped in hundreds of kilometres of nets, and either used for shooting or eaten.

Say no to poisons
The wet Irish summers also mean that those swallows who do make it home have fewer flies to feed on. This leaves them weakened for their long journey back to their wintering grounds at the end of the summer.
And the widespread use of pesticides and weedkillers in Ireland is making this food situation much, much worse. As our understanding of their terrible impact on the environment grows, our attitudes towards chemical pollutants are changing; hopefully these poisons will be banned before it is too late.   
Ultimately, while a pair of swallows that nests successfully raises 100 chicks during their lifetime together, only a handful of those chicks will survive their first year.
Our Mayo albino fledgeling certainly has its work cut out. Its albinism means its eyesight may be weak, while its pale colouring could make it an easy target for birds of prey. Let’s try to do what we can to help it and its much-loved species survive. Please think twice before reaching for the RoundUp.

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