Campaigning for swift boxes

Dick Newell

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Guest blog by conservationist Dick Newell

Back in 1954, a 12 year old boy, with the Observer's Book of Birds in his hand, was struggling to decide whether the sickle-winged birds flying over his home in South Wales were swallows or swifts. His mother assured him that they were swifts - she knew what she was talking about. I had bird number 1 on my life list.

Roll forward a few years, and I went to Imperial College, just down the road from the Natural History Museum where Chris Mead worked in the ringing office. There followed many an enjoyable evening at Barn Elms reservoir (now WWT London Wetland Centre) catching and ringing swifts crossing the causeways. I next ran into Chris in a major way when my startup company was charged with supplying the first computer system and software to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Tring. Chris foresaw the decline in Swifts before anyone else, so he knocked bricks out of his gable end and inserted his own design of Swift box - still mentioned in the BTO nest box guide. Chris's boxes were successful, and until very recently were still there.

In 2002 I found a swift stuck, hanging out of a hole in our 17th century house in Landbeach. I rescued it and put some nest boxes up, as the hole it had tried to access was too small. This was the start of my campaign to install swift boxes. I now have 10 pairs of swifts in nest boxes on the house. We have installed several hundred nest boxes around Cambridge and Suffolk with some spectacular successes in church belfries. And yes, I have knocked bricks out of my gable too!

In the last 20 years we have lost over half of our swifts: that’s over 100,000 pairs. The main reason I believe is loss of nest sites. Thus we need to replace 100,000 lost nest sites with nest boxes. When we put up swift boxes, perhaps 30% of them may become occupied by swifts. So to achieve our desired target, we may need to install 300,000 nest boxes. To wind the clock back more than 20 years may need half a million or even a million nest boxes.

In a context where the government wishes to build 300,000 new homes a year this is eminently doable over the coming years. It just needs the will of planners to condition swift bricks, for the builders to install them followed by monitoring and enforcement when this is not done. After all, with several hundred thousand new swift boxes, you would help a large number of red-listed house sparrows too!

Read more about swifts on Dick's blog: Action for Swifts

Find out how you can give swifts a home

Image by Dick Newell

Last Updated: Wednesday 13 February 2019

Tagged with: Topic: Swift