Bird 'backpacks' to uncover swift secrets

Katie Phoenix

Thursday 30 June 2016

A new project to find out where migrant birds forage in Northern Ireland has taken flight, thanks to a partnership between RSPB Northern Ireland, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Northern Ireland Swift Group.

In a first for conservation science in Northern Ireland, this summer dozens of swifts will be fitted with tiny GPS 'backpacks' in a bid to shed light on key feeding areas- something which has previously been impossible to monitor.

During June and July, experts will safely re-capture the swifts, some of which have been previously tagged as part of a BTO and NI Swift Group migration study, to fit them with newly-developed miniature tracking devices which weigh less than one gram.

Being used for the first time in Ireland, and building on work carried out by the BTO over the previous two summers, these devices will record the locations of the swifts at approximately hourly intervals with an accuracy of just a few metres, revealing the feeding behaviour of nesting swifts in unprecedented detail.

The UK swift population has declined dramatically in recent years due to loss of nesting sites. As swifts can feed many miles away from where they nest, it's vital that conservationists know where they're nesting and where they're feeding so that both sites can be protected. It is hoped that this project will reveal a unique insight into their behaviour and that the data collected from the tags will be invaluable in protecting one of the most special and threatened migratory species to make its home here.

Through this tracking project scientists hope to learn where birds from specific colonies forage when they leave the nest, including differences in behaviour between swifts nesting in urban and rural colonies. After recovering tags the team at RSPB NI will be able to see, on screen, where the tagged birds spent each hour of the last few days - offering a unique insight into their behaviour.

Tiny technology

Kendrew Colhoun, from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, said: "We live in particularly exciting times as research biologists as new smaller technology is making the previously impossible possible. It is a privilege to work with such remarkable birds and have the opportunity to collect this valuable information which will aid with our conservation efforts for this species."

Dr Chris Hewson, BTO Senior Research Ecologist, said: "How highly-mobile species, such as swifts, use the landscapes they depend on for breeding can only be discovered by using the miniature tracking devices that are only now becoming available. This cutting-edge technology will allow us to uncover details of the movement patterns swifts employ and the habitats they use, through which we will be able to inform appropriate conservation action and promote a better understanding of these amazing birds."

Swifts are amazing birds which travel around 12,000 miles every year, migrating from breeding sites within the UK and Ireland to their African wintering grounds. They nest in buildings and pair for life, meeting up each spring at the same nest site which is 'renovated' and reused year after year. As old buildings are fixed up or demolished, these sites are often lost and it can be difficult for pairs to find a new site in time to lay eggs and raise a brood before heading back to warmer climes in August.

Swift Cities - more coming soon

The RSPB is launching a new national 'Swift Cities Project' to stop and reverse the decline of swifts through raising public awareness, working in partnership with building planners and developers to protect swift nest sites and monitoring local swift populations through citizen science. Following the success of the founding Swift Cities set up in Belfast and Exeter, the charity aims to launch more swift cities in regions all around the UK.

You can help by sending your sightings to the RSPB Swift Survey at survey. This will provide essential data on swift nest site locations and enable conservationists to protect and enhance these precious colonies.

The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

The BTO is a research charity increasing our knowledge of birds to inform the conservation of nature. For more information on the BTO and its work on migrant birds, like swift, please visit

Fun swift facts

· A swift weighs about the same as a Cadbury's Crème Egg (40g)

· It is estimated that swifts fly an average daily total of 800 km - nearly 500 miles! That's about 2 million km (more than 1.24 million miles) in a lifetime!

· They eat, sleep and breed on the wing, only touching the ground to raise their chicks. They seem to bathe by flying relatively slowly through falling rain

· Swifts mature and breed when they are four years old. Those that survive the hazardous early years can expect to survive a further 4-6 years. The oldest ringed bird lived for at least 21 years.

· Swifts have a remarkable and unique way of surviving bad weather and food shortages. Their eggs survive chilling at any stages of development if adults have to spend more time away from the nest foraging - something that would kill the embryos of any other bird.

· Swifts can be confused with three similar, but unrelated species: the swallow, house martin and sand martin. In built-up areas, the house martin is the most likely confusion species. Swifts have a forked tail and scythe-shaped wings, while swallows have long tail 'streamers' and house martins have a distinctive white rump.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: UK Topic: Science