Bank Holiday Monday book review – Summer’s Guests by Theunis Piersma


I’ve lived with House Martins in the streets where I live, and sometimes next door, but never on my home, for more than half my life. Their return, ahead of the screaming Swifts, is looked for and appreciated when it happens. And they are there, chirrupping in flight, all summer long and sometimes daring to stay into the nippy days of early autumn long after the Swifts have gone.  They tug summer after them and when it leaves it tugs them away with it.

Theunis Piersma, in the Netherlands, also lives with House Martins but he has put more effort into attracting them and they nest in numbers on his house in Gaast in Friesland.

This is a delightful book – there ought to be more like it. It reminded me more of David Lack’s Life of the Robin than of his Swifts in a Tower, despite the obvious similarities between House Martins and Swifts, because the book is so peppered with observations of the bird that were made by chance as the author went about his daily work. And this, too, is a book written by a leading ornithologist and ecologist whose observations of the birds around him are informed by a love of birds but also an understanding of what makes them tick.

As you sit in your garden on a summer evening, with House Martins above your head, you may have wondered where they spent the winter, what they eat, what their love life is like, how long they live and what are the main dangers they face. You will quite possibly have wondered where they nested before we provided them with houses.  Piersma answers all these questions, and many more from reviewing the scientific literature and through his own observations and research. He also explains why white feathers, rather than dark ones, are used to line the nests (fascinating!) and touches on a host of other interesting areas that you will love.

Here are some chapter titles which give a flavour of the relaxed writing style but also the areas covered:  Revisiting Gilbert White; James Bond; Hobbies – an aerial threat?; Insect-eating Orcas; To the Congo too?.

This is a book to buy now and read as you take part in the BTO House Martin Survey, and then to take out and read again every April for the rest of your life so that you can appreciate the author’s skill and remind yourself of the bird that is about to return to grace the skies of your city, town or village.

The attractive cover is by Carry Akroyd, the attractive chapter vignettes by Jos Zvarts and the delightful Foreword by Ian Newton.

Summer Guests: a House Martin love story by Theunis Piersma is published by the BTO (and a very fine job they have made of it).


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


6 Replies to “Bank Holiday Monday book review – Summer’s Guests by Theunis Piersma”

  1. I love Book Review day – happy there are two this week. There are so many fabulous ‘nature’ books – of all types – being written now. I think those like Guests of Summer which offer a mixture of ‘hard’ info and ‘soft’ personal story telling are the best – and likely to get wider audiences, of course. Which these days, can only be a good thing.

    I always used to prefer photographs of wildlife for cover illustrations of nature books until Carry Akroyd came along. It’s almost as if, with her naive style – and the childlike enthusiasm (both in a good way) of many of the so-called New Nature writers, we are being returned to where we need to be, to do what we need to do.

  2. The return of the house martins, sand martins and swallows is indeed one of the joys of Spring each year. So often though, one can’t help feeling tremendously sorry for them at this time of year, watching them flying low over some slate grey water body in blustery winds and temperatures that struggle to reach double figures. On average they obviously cope well enough with such conditions but one could forgive them for regretting exchanging the tropical warmth of Africa for the rude English April!

  3. After reading the chapter on swifts in this book I am deeply saddened to say that many people will, because of its association with the BTO believe its contents to be true.
    Nothing could be further from the truth. Swifts are insectivores and should be fed on nothing but insects. They should never be thrown into the air and the quoted weight on release of little Jappy ensured that he was never going to reach Africa.
    Should you find a swift please get in touch with an expert before you do anything.

  4. I entirely agree with Judith’s comment and there has been much annoyance expressed on the excellent ‘Swift Local Network’ yahoo group about the fact that the BTO published and promoted this book which contains such erroneous advice about caring for swifts. Apparently an insert will now be put in each copy to make clear the errors in the section about how to care for sick, injured or fallen swifts.
    To read more about this and how to (properly) care for swifts see this post on the Action for Swifts blog: .

  5. A book on house martins written by such a renowned ornithologist, published by the BTO, forwarded and reviewed by so many illustrious scientists and experts and recommended by several contacts… expectations were high!

    Maybe a little too high, never mind it was an enjoyable if rather lightweight read until reaching the chapter on Swifts, fortunately limited to three pages.

    The author claims to have referred to David Lack’s iconic book Swifts in a Tower. This has to be questioned as much of the information given in this chapter is not only incorrect but extremely damaging, swifts are currently enjoying a very high profile in the UK due to their sharp decline and many people are attempting to rehabilitate casualties.
    The description of the two rehabilitation attempts are not only significantly outdated but will have set back the introduction of correct protocols many years…..who is going to believe this exalted group of “experts” are not correct?

    Diet: Why Professor Theunis believes meat to be suitable to feed an obligate insectivore after conducting so much research into the insects consumed by House Martins remains a mystery.

    Weight: This is equally as crucial as diet, young common swifts under ideal conditions, should peak their weight around 50 grams and regress to about 45 grams at fledging.
    The weight of 31 grams quoted might have given short term flight ability but with the power to weight ratio being so compromised the chances of poor Jappy surviving with little or no fat reserves until mastering hunting skills are remote.

    Press ups: Swifts do this to build up their muscle strength and start at a very young age, long before fledging. Nothing at all to do with “checking their weight” this occurs naturally when the weight regresses from peak weight.

    Throwing a Swift: Never, throw a Swift; they are quite capable of taking off from most ground if fit and healthy. They should be held high in the air on an open hand, if they are ready they will take off, if not they just dig in their claws or turn round…turning around means “No thank you” in swift lingo.

    Nests: Professor Theunis claims they do not build nests, they do.

    All this information and much more are available in Swifts in a Tower and the Swift-conservation website provides up to date contacts and advice.

    Recent studies regarding the harm of non insect diets by Enric Fuste has scientifically proven the case.
    Hand reared chicks using correct protocols have now been recaptured years later.

    I sincerely hope any reprints of this book will be corrected accordingly and this review may help mitigate the undoubted harm this book may have incurred by perpetuating incorrect rehabilitation techniques that causes countless swifts unnecessary suffering every summer.

    Sadly the BTO are refusing to withdraw the current edition but intend placing slips of paper with a correction in their stock, no sign as yet of any statement anywhere on the website and no opportunity to leave a comment on the page selling the book.

    A very lukewarm reaction considering the ramifications of this fiasco.

    Gillian Westray
    (Swift & Hirundine rehabilitator)

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