Swift in darkness

The footless swift

In the last 20 years, more than half of our swifts have vanished. Their distinctive screaming calls are the quintessential sound of summer, but our sunny skies are falling silent as fewer and fewer swifts return from migration each year.

No home to go to

The problem facing our swifts – or at least part of the problem – may be our building habits. As we’ve changed the way we build our homes, swifts have found themselves without a place to nest.

The good news is that this is a problem we can fix.

The RSPB has been able to work with some big housing developers to build special ‘swift bricks’ right into the fabric of new houses and flats. Our ‘Swift Mapper’ is also helping us to build up a good picture of breeding swifts across the country. Last year, the mapper received 67% more submissions than the previous year, which is fantastic, and this year, we’re hoping to get even more.

What's in a name?

At the RSPB, we don’t normally refer to birds by their scientific names anymore as they can be a bit off-putting. But delve into their meanings and they’re fascinating. You soon discover that an eider duck is a “softest down body” (Somateria mollissima) and an oyster catcher is an “oyster-collecting blood foot” (Haematopus ostralegus). Some names are perplexing like Puffinus puffinus (which is of course a Manx shearwater…). But the swift’s scientific name, Apus apus, can shed some light on the misconceptions we may have once had about these birds. It means “footless, footless”.

Swifts do (of course) have feet, very strong feet in fact, and intriguing toes that are designed for gripping onto sheer walls and cliffs. But unlike most birds, they don’t land very much. You’ll never see them perched, and they very rarely end up on the ground. Because of this, they’ve evolved extremely short legs, possibly the shortest legs of any bird compared to its size, and this may be the reason for the name.

Amazing journeys

Swifts are remarkable for a bird that weighs about the same as a four-finger Kit-Kat. For starters, they live around nine years, which is a long time for a little bird, and they travel a staggering 12,000 miles each year on their migration, chasing down the abundant populations of tiny invertebrates they  feed on to survive. They’ve been recorded flying without ever landing for 10 months at a time and seem to be able to do almost everything on the wing: sleep, eat, bathe, even mate. The only thing they definitely can’t do without landing is lay eggs, for which they need a nest.

Unlike the mud cups of swallows and house martins, swifts make their nests in holes. They would once have used cliffs or caves, and RSPB Scotland Abernethy hosts the only known tree-nesting swifts in the UK. But most swifts take advantage of the very suitable structures our houses provide them, nesting under eaves and slates, and returning faithfully to the same sites year after year.

Sadly, this may have contributed to their downfall. We’ve changed the way we build our homes, knocking down old buildings and putting up new ones that don’t have those nice nooks and crannies that swifts need to nest in. Older buildings too are getting renovations, closing gaps, and in some cases, even sealing up swift nests that may have been in use for generations.

Some simple solutions

Working with the RSPB, Barratt Homes has pledged to install swift bricks in all the new houses built in Bournemouth, Brighton, Oxford, Cardiff, Ipswich, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Edinburgh. These bricks provide a cavity for the swifts to raise their chicks in, along with a little gap for them to get access and are a highly effective solution to the lack of other suitable nesting sites.

Swifts won’t nest in the standard box that you might put up for a blue tit, but they will nest in these swift bricks and specially designed swift boxes. The siting of the box is crucial, as they need a lot of space at the entrance, and they do also seem to need quite a lot of encouragement to start using the box, particularly in areas that have lost their swifts through the years. They can usually be attracted in through playing recordings of their screaming calls, as these are territorial, and let young swifts know that there are suitable nesting sites nearby.  

Swifts are urban birds and are happy nesting right into the heart of big cities, as well as suburban areas and rural villages. This means that putting up a swift box is something that almost anyone can try, as long the situation is right.

The Swift Mapper

If you don’t have a swift nest or a swift brick in your building (swifts are very considerate neighbours, so you might not even know they’re there!) you may be able to try putting up your own swift box. But wherever you are, and whatever your situation, you can also join in with our swift mapper.

How you can help

Just as important as giving swifts a home is finding out where they are. Through surveys, we know that their populations have crashed, but finding out where they’re still breeding is really important for helping to target work to aid their recovery.

All you need to do is look out for swifts that are screaming or flying at roof-height. If they’re just flying around high in the sky, that means they’re feeding, and they can travel many miles from the nest to find food. But if you see or hear screaming swifts flying low down, they’re probably breeding, and you should head to our swift mapper and record it.

The more records we have, the better placed we’ll be to protect existing sites, and even provide new nesting sites for these remarkable and fascinating little birds. With your help, the RSPB will be able to keep the footless swift up the air and flying for future generations to marvel at.