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Rehabilitation of Hirundines     by  Gillian Westray


Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica & House Martin- Delichon urbica


The following notes, hints and observations have been compiled from a specialised single handed rehabilitation unit. This is not a scientific study as such but based on a sound knowledge of the individual species natural lifestyle and trying wherever possible to either replicate nature or offer an educated compromise. This experience has been gained over a period of 10 years and several hundreds of birds, every season something new is learned and improvements implemented.

The success rate has been consistently in the region of 85%.

Without the benefit of post release monitoring “success” is deemed to be releasing a fit well feathered bird of a good weight into a natural community and watching it integrate and become indistinguishable from the wild birds.


This is essential reading to gain invaluable knowledge of the lifestyle. The Barn Swallow by Angela Turner ISBN 0-7136-6558-0

Swifts, Swallows & House martins are often confused...some similarities but very different care is needed during rehabilitation.

Only feeding on the wing




Parental feeding after fledging

Nestling period

Weather can effect food supply & growth rate




37-56 days


18-23 days

House martins

22-32 days




This should be insectivorous, a mixture of wax worm larva, crickets with legs removed, flies, white mini mealworms and small locusts are ideal. Use with vitamin & mineral supplement daily. Diets recommended for Swifts work perfectly well but use the smaller sizes or cut into pieces.


The younger nestlings should gape readily, or within 24 hours when placed in an established group. Some are more reluctant and never gape, they need to be “assisted”, this is quite simple as their beaks are hard ...unlike a swift.  Gently open the beak from the side an insect will be readily swallowed if placed on the tongue towards the back of the throat.

See case study of 3 swallows giving weight and food details.


  (This must not be a wire cage but a smooth plastic container to protect feathers)

Nestlings placed in a correctly shaped nest will defecate over the edge; they will also stay in the nest until close to fledging when they will venture onto a perch. See case study & photos 1 & 2.




House martins


House martins stay in the nest longer than swallows and are therefore more developed than swallows when ready to fledge; their weight will have reduced, the body shape becomes more streamlined and they will probably have stopped gaping. A perch needs to be in the cage close to the nest for them to move onto when ready. *Once the tips of the longest primary wing feathers cross over the back they are ready to fly and can be moved into the flexarium for flight practise during the day returning them to the nest at dusk replicates nature and keeps them contained for feeding.



Because of size variation, weighing to monitor progress should be accompanied by checking the fat reserves. In nature the chicks would fledge and be fed by the parents for a few days. Martins feed high in the sky and need full flight ability to reach these feeding areas where the parents will feed them on the wing. To compensate for being unable to offer in flight feeding; the fledglings are thoroughly put through flight checks of being able to take off, land, perch and control flight in a space 4m x 7m. This has proven to be sufficient, any larger space would make catching for feeding etc. very difficult. Prior to the larger space a flexarium provides adequate space and control to gain initial flight control and will contain live insects to practise catching prey.

Weather permitting, normal House martins are usually ready to be released into a community about 3-4 days after initial fledging. Some strong birds are rather wild and best released early.

Once a local group has been located they are often feeding above the clouds and can only be heard by their clear bell like call, the released youngsters usually announce their first flight and this brings down the wild birds that greet them and take the newcomers up to the feeding areas.

These hints are for Young House martins without problems and as such should be released without delay once flight ability is proven.

(weather permitting)


Some other rehabilitators release House martins the minute they can fly and others keep them until they are feeding themselves from bowls.

Personally I prefer to make sure they have excellent flight ability and good fat reserves to go some way to compensate for no parental aftercare.

Feeding from bowls seems a VERY bad idea as they need to feed on the wing and could be landing looking for bowls if trained in this way.


Common Causes of Problems

Nests falling or being destroyed brings by far the greatest number of casualties, providing they have not suffered injury from the fall, once they have recovered from the shock they are usually healthy birds. BROKEN LEGS are very common and usually present no problem in a nestling, by the time they are ready to fledge the fracture is healed. Even with a deformed leg the patient if given a little extra time will learn to adapt its landing and perching accordingly.

Incorrect Care are the hardest cases to handle, these are birds hand reared on the wrong diet under poor conditions that are handed in when the finders get bored or encounter problems. Some can be saved given time, often when they are put onto the correct diet they will moult and can grow perfectly good feathers. This will take up to six weeks and viability will depend on the time of year. Much depends upon the personality of the bird concerned, usually when reared by the general public they are too tame but they can be very useful as a “companion” to other patients whilst they re-grow their feathers.

Behavioural Problems with House martins often takes the form of aggression, much noisy good natured squabbling goes on and jostling for favourite positions on perches and in the nest pan...this is normal. Real aggression is often caused by lack of calcium and a few doses of calcium gluconate cures this very quickly. All nestlings are given an infusion of vitamin B complex and calcium gluconate 3 times a week as part of their supplement regime.


Swallows are more challenging to the rehabilitator, firstly they fledge at a much earlier stage than the house martins and secondly they seem to suffer from deficiencies to a far greater degree.



Swallows will venture onto the perch a few days before they are able to fly, when they are ready ...if the top of the cage is left open they will perform a perfectly controlled vertical take off. This is the stage to transfer them into the flexarium during the day time. Normally they will readily take insects from the tweezers whilst sitting on the perches and are very happy to return to the nest at night.

Food and water is provided, mini locusts and a few wax worms are excellent for practising as they do not hide like crickets and are slower movers.

This regime usually lasts for about 7 days, once the youngsters decide they do not want to return to the nest, this will be made very clear indeed ... this is the time for release. By this time there should be a good length of primary feathers with no casings.

When released into a community with plenty of nests they should hopefully integrate with the other juveniles.



Spells of cold weather affecting the food supply during egg laying and early development seem to have a more detrimental effect on swallows than house martins. A healthy swallow should have a really deep yellow gape; a pale yellow gape can be an indication of a weaker bird. A course of multi vitamins may help allay future problems.

Unusual head movements often indicate calcium deficiency; treat with calcium gluconate & vitamin B complex infusion.

“Rejected or fallen nestlings” are often gathered up by the general public and present as weak birds with poor feathers. Good food and care often bring on a comprehensive moult within days, many turn into perfectly fine swallows.


These techniques are time consuming but result in a worthwhile success rate, the unit with one person cares for approx 150 swifts, swallows and house martins each summer.

Gillian Westray


                                DOWNLOAD A CASE STUDY


Gillian Westray specialises in the rehabilitation of Swifts, Swallows & House martins, and is based in rural South Worcestershire UK. Working with she is trying  to  improve the rehabilitation protocols for these particular birds by making case studies and general advice freely available, both personally and through trusted websites.