At home with a House Martin

As a wildlife lover and cat owner, the summer is always a time of conflict and sadness, as inevitably my cat will bring in her share of newly fledged, vulnerable little birds, the majority of which, despite my best efforts to save them, don’t survive the shock or injuries sustained.

It is estimated that cats kill around 55 million* birds a year and are widely blamed for the decline in many of our well known species including the House Sparrow. Research however suggests that they tend predate the weaker, ill or injured birds and these losses have little impact on the population as a whole. Despite this, domestic cats and their impact on our garden birds remains a contentious subject.

Like most cat owners I feel terrible guilty for all those birds killed by my own pet, and whilst many will simply say keeping cats indoors is the solution, this is not in the best interest of most cats and their quality of life. We can however do something try and curb the losses, by keeping our cats indoors at night and early in the morning when birds are most active, providing our cats with play and stimulation to lessen the desire to hunt, and putting bell collars on our cats which may give birds and early warning to their presence


Yesterday, a tiny nestling house martin looked destined to be the latest feline victim. It must had fallen from the nest, of which there are several high up under the eaves of the house. House Martins do not fledge until they are able to fly strongly, and very rarely spend time on the ground, leaving this youngster even more vulnerable than many other birds, who are at least able to hop around and flap into the undergrowth for safety.

Our cat grabbed the tiny bird before I could whisk it away to safety but fortunately I was able to intervene before the cat could do any major damage.

A photo showing just how tiny the little nestling was (and I have pretty tiny hands!)

A bird in the hand

Getting this youngster back into the nest would be impossible due to it’s location so I promptly took it inside into a warm, dark box where it could recuperate. Checking on it a little while later, I fully expected the little bird to have died from the shock of it’s ordeal, and so it was then a great surprise and relief, to find it bright and alert, and shuffling around in the box.

Inside it’s new tissue paper nest

I checked the chick for injuries, and miraculously there was not a scratch on it. The bird appeared to be close to fledging, perhaps only a few days to a week away. Fine wisps of downy feathers were slowly being replaced with sleek adult plumage and the wing feathers were beginning to erupt from their sheaths ready for the bird’s maiden flight.

As the tiny creature clambered about in my hand, it felt both incredibly fragile, and surprisingly strong, able to cling with it’s powerful hairy feet and flap it’s wings to strengthen it’s muscles.

A tiny wing stretch

Still somewhat uncoordinated, the odd wobble was inevitable!

Taking a tumble

Happy that the chick was alert and active, the next step was to try and give it some food and cat food (ironically) seemed the best choice temporarily for this young insectivore. Taking tiny pieces of food in a pair of tweezers, the chick seemed uninterested and kept it’s beak firmly closed.

An idea struck me and I found some recorded house martin calls on the internet to play to the youngster. No sooner had it heard the chirrups did it begin to utter it’s own tiny squeaks, and to my immense surprise, immediately opened it’s bright yellow gape and took a great mouthful of meat!

Several helpings of meat later and the chick settled down on it’s belly to digest it’s meal. In the warmth of my hand it closed it’s eyes and dozed off. Like all baby birds it would soon be hungry and in need of feeding once again!

Settling down to sleep

We continued this pattern of listening to bird calls, feeding and putting the chick back in it’s box to sleep every hour or so throughout the day, until very sadly it was time for me to say goodbye to my tiny house guest.

Whilst hand rearing kittens in one thing, rearing a wild bird is something best left to the experts, who can provide the correct nutrition and the chance to grow up with others of it’s own kind. The house martin was handed over to a local vet where it would be cared for alongside another baby bird they already had in, and later transferred to specialist bird hospital for rehabilitation and hopefully, release.

Despite the positive signs, the chances of baby birds surviving without the care of their parents is slim. However, I am comforted to know that if the bird doesn’t survive at least it will die in warmth and safety rather than as the cat’s next meal, and I will remember the day spent nurturing it with great fondness.

Baby birds always have such grumpy expressions!

All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography 2018 ©

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