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Endurance athletes depart as the spectators arrive

25 July 2012

Tim Webb
London Communications Manager

Olympic tourists to London from Africa and Europe will find a welcome familiarity to the soundtrack over the east London venues, the sound of calling swifts.

However, the volume will be dimmed compared with previous years as the warmer, drier weather has arrived too late and swifts are beginning to be seen heading back to Africa earlier than usual following a ‘disastrous’ cold and wet breeding season here in the UK.

The summer migrants are already on the amber-list of conservation concern after declining 31 per cent between 1995 and 2009.  The cold and wet spring and summer months this year have meant fewer flying insects for them and their chicks to feed on.  More flying insects are appearing now, thanks to the sunshine and the increased number of wildflower meadows in London, like those in the Olympic Park. The birds need to feed well to build up strength and stamina for the long flight back to Africa; but experts warn their breeding success has already been affected this year. 

Edward Mayer of Swift Conservation says; ‘It has been a disastrous summer for many swifts and we fully expect to see a decline in the breeding figures this year.  People are telling us that the number of swifts that arrived here several months ago was consistent with last year, but after that, they disappeared as they flew away to wherever they could find food. We’ve seen adult birds struggling through storms and expending so much energy, they’ve ended-up underweight and faced by a scarcity of flying insects to eat because of the miserable weather. The annual flying ant swarm due to happen this week will be a help, but not enough to make up for the overall summer deficit of bugs for them to feed on.   

‘They are nesting, ‘added Edward. ‘But as far as we can tell, without much success. In acts of desperate self-preservation, adults have been recorded pushing un-hatched eggs out of their nests because they haven’t been able to feed themselves sufficiently, let alone incubate the eggs and feed young mouths too. The drier weather has unfortunately arrived too late for them.’

Aside from the weather, one of the main problems swifts face is a lack of nesting sites.  They nest in buildings, and most commonly in the roof space of people’s homes, but renovation of old buildings and the creation of new ones with no access or space for nests means they are being left homeless.  The RSPB is keen to find out more so that it can help to tackle the decline. 

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, says: ‘The last thing this struggling species needed was to be hit hard by the wet weather this year.  But, they are at the mercy of more than just a wet summer.  Their ability to nest depends on our buildings having spaces for them.  They fly as many as 6,000 miles each spring to get here from Africa to breed, only to find that changes in the way we’re building and renovating means there are fewer nest spaces.  We need to make sure the right choices are made when building and developing so these birds aren’t left homeless.’

The RSPB is asking Londoners to submit details of swift nests, or groups of the birds flying at roof level and giving their characteristic ‘screaming’ call indicating they are nesting nearby, at  The information will be shared with local authorities, developers and architects, amongst others, to help them consider the needs of swifts when building or renovating. 

Find out more about Swift Conservation at


  1. Find out more about the RSPB’s work on swifts and take part in the annual survey at
  2. As a group, swifts are the fastest of all birds in level flight. The top speed recorded in a recent scientific study was 111.6km/h (69.3mph) 
  3. Swifts almost never land, except at their nest sites, doing everything in flight including eating, sleeping and even mating.
  4. Swifts spend only three months a year in the UK, the rest of the time they live in Africa.
  5. For its size, the swift has an exceptionally long life span, averaging about 5.5 years. One bird in Oxford was found dying in 1964, 16 years after it was ringed as an adult, and therefore likely to be at least 18 years old. It’s estimated this bird flew about 4 million miles in its lifetime; about the same as flying to the moon and back 8 times.
  6. There are three European species of swifts and the birds colouring and size varies geographically. Swift species tend to be paler in dry areas and darker in wet areas, and tend to be smaller in hotter and larger in colder regions. The further north a swift species lives, the darker it will be; our UK swifts are the darkest of the lot.
  7. Find out more about our work in the Capital by visiting our blog page, follow us on Facebook or @rspblondonon Twitter
  8. RSPB London is a proud member of The London Biodiversity Partnership, co-ordinating conservation work across the Capital:

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