Young barn swallow await feeding in their nest.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests many South African swallows never made it to their British breeding grounds this year.
  • In May it appeared they may just be late – but with the season already turning again, concern is now mounting.
  • A disastrous storm over Greece in April may be to blame, and may overturn the previous consensus on the route the birds take from South Africa to Britain.
  • For more stories go to

By now South Africa's swallows should have been settled in for their annual breeding season in Britain – but instead they have been reported missing.

The British Trust for Ornithology says swallow visitors to that country have arrived "in much lower numbers than we would expect", further entrenching fears that have been growing since May, when the birds were just thought to be late, as happens from time to time.

UK birdwatchers have not completed a full survey, due to lockdown measures, but people from around that country have been asking questions about the striking absence of swallows – and searching the web for information such as "where are the swallows?"

The arrival of South Africa's swallows are keenly watched in Britain, where they can count on staunch defenders

See also: A British supermarket is facing boycott calls for trying to keep out birds from South Africa

With the window for massive flocks to arrive in the UK now believed to be closed, the question is what, exactly happened.

In early April swallows dropped out of the sky over Athens and were found dead around Nauplia and the Aegean islands, in what the Greek ornithologist association described as a disaster due to a combination of strong winds and low temperatures. 

Greece often sees exhausted birds take a breather after their crossing of the Mediterranean, one of the more arduous parts of their epic journey. But to date it has been generally agreed that those birds come from north Africa, while South African birds were though to follow a different flight path over Spain.

More than a hundred years of studies have only partially explained how different types of swallows migrate.

See also: Bored in lockdown? Join other South Africans in a battle to spot the most birds

Now, say British bird experts, that may have to be rethought, with no hypothesis other than the Greek storms currently on the table for the mass disappearance of the South African swallows.

The swallows are due back in South Africa during September and October.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

Receive a daily update on your cellphone with all our latest news: click here.

Get the best of our site emailed to you daily: click here.

Also from Business Insider South Africa: