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Homeless neighbours need our help, says RSPB

Last modified: 14 June 2012

Swifts flying at low level over rooftops

Image: Nigel Blake

One of the UK’s most iconic summer birds is being left homeless because of changes to our buildings, says the RSPB.

Swifts are one of our closest natural neighbours, making the long flight from Africa to the UK each spring to nest in our buildings, most commonly in the roof space of people’s homes.

Swifts have declined by 31% in the 14 year period 1995 to 2009 and they have been placed on the amber list, meaning they are of serious conservation concern.

The loss of nest sites due to building improvement or demolition is a major problem.

Swifts nest in buildings, especially old structures with lots of gaps and nooks. But these cavities are increasingly being blocked up in old buildings, while new buildings often lack them altogether.

The RSPB is urging people in West Sussex to Step Up for swifts this summer, as these extraordinary birds start arriving in our skies.

The wildlife charity’s annual Swift Survey kicks off again this month, to help build a better picture of where the birds are still seen so that nest sites can be protected.

Samantha Stokes, of the RSPB in the south east said:”Swifts are our neighbours.  Some of us literally share our homes with them, but may not know they are there because they are such clean, discreet and considerate birds; really the ideal neighbours.

“Many people celebrate the arrival of swifts as a sign that summer is here. 

“We also marvel at their ability to travel long distances very quickly during their long migration to and from Africa.

“But their journey often ends with a thud if their old nest site has been blocked up.

“Swifts nest almost exclusively in cavities in our buildings, and use the same sites year after year, so we can have a serious impact on them when we carry out repairs and renovations, or demolish old houses.

“A lack of suitable nest sites is becoming a problem for them and we want to find out more.  That’s why from June through to August, when swift activity is at its peak, we’re asking people to tell us about any nesting swifts that they’re aware of. It’s a simple but vital step for nature that anyone can take.” 

People can log their swift nests now at including information about groups of swifts giving their characteristic ‘screaming’ call and flying at roof level, which usually means they are nesting nearby.

This is the fourth year that RSPB has been collecting information from the Swift Survey. 

More than 26,000 nests have been logged since it began in 2009, more than half of which were in someone’s house and almost a third in buildings that pre-date 1919. 

Miss Stokes added, “The public response to the call for records has been overwhelming, and the information is being used to encourage developers, local councils and building companies to retain or create nest sites.

“Now we need to keep the information up to date in order to see whether birds are returning, and whether the colony is stable. So if you did the survey last year, please help by taking part again this year."

The information that people give will be made available via the National Biodiversity Network (NBN). This helps local authorities, developers and architects, to consider the needs of swifts when building or renovating. 

Some local councils and building companies have already started incorporating swift measures in their planning, protecting existing nest sites and installing swift boxes and ‘swift bricks’ which provide new nesting areas for the birds.

The charity hopes that as more swift records are gathered, even more Councils and developers will do what they can to help reverse the declines.

The RSPB suggests a number of simple measures that could help the fast dwindling swift population:

1.       Do not schedule any roofing work while swifts are nesting (May-August). Disturbing the nest by working too close to it, including erecting scaffold, can cause the birds to desert. Also, it is illegal to interfere with an active nest.

2.       Leave any existing nest sites undisturbed where possible. Swifts will use the same nest sites again and again. 

3.       If you need to carry out repair work on your roof or fascias and soffits, make new nest access holes to match the old ones at exactly the same spot.

4.       If building a new house, plan some internal nest spaces at the design stage.

5.       If you are unable to do any of these, the other alternative is to fit a custom-made swift box.

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