“Screee! Screeeee!” You may have heard their distinctive scream overhead, or spotted groups of these scythe-shaped, swallow-like birds swooping low over Greater Manchester rooftops in the summer months? They are hands down my favourite sound in nature.
Swifts do exactly what they say on the tin - they are one of the fastest birds we have. As I watch them swoop and soar over my sister’s house in Prestwich at her annual summer BBQ, like bolts of lightning across the sky, they never fail to make me beam.
Their appearance in May announces the start of summer. Not that summer often means much in Greater Manchester where I grew up. We often joke that “you missed summer, it happened that weekend you were away.” But regardless of whether the sun is actually shining, they show up. Swifts show up to let us know that it is getting warmer (you don’t need your big coat now) and that behind the clouds, there is definitely some sun. And that it will soon be time for my sister’s BBQ again, time for me to make a vodka fruit punch so strong it nearly takes the enamel off your teeth.
Swifts show up, following an incredible journey from Africa, where they wisely go to spend the winter months, away from the generally relentless rain, cold and often snow in Greater Manchester. They come here to raise their families.
They choose their seasonal home among us humans. They don’t build a mud-cup nest like swallows and house martins. They nest in holes or cavities inside the eaves and gables of our homes, behind fascia boards and flashings, under roof tiles and where there is missing pointing, especially where the top of the wall meets the roof. Swifts make clean neighbours. Often people don’t even know swifts are nesting in their home, they are that quiet and tidy whilst inside.
Swifts are only around for a short while, from May to August generally until they head back to Africa. When a young swift leaves the nest, they won’t land again for around four years. Yes, you read that correctly, they won’t come to land again until they have matured enough to breed. And even then, they will only come to land to have their young. Swifts you see, are absolute masters of the skies. They spend their lives in the air. They eat up there, they mate up there, they even sleep up there! They are unbelievably incredible.
Because they don’t need them for much of their lives, swifts don’t have proper legs and feet in the way that other birds do. Their scientific name Apus apus comes from Ancient Greek and means ‘without foot’. They may only have tiny little feet and legs but they do have immense grip. I know this because I once had the absolute privilege of releasing one back into the sky, and it had a right good hold on my finger when I first took it out of the box. It had been picked up by someone who had found it on a road, believing it to be injured. It was in fact totally fine, but young swifts can sometimes misjudge things in their pursuit of insects. And if they land on the ground, their general lack of proper legs and feet means they can’t lift off again. So the young swift needed my help to get it back in the air. I went to a field with a soft landing, crossed all my toes, wished it good luck and launched it into the sky. It spread out its wings and zoomed upwards. I burst into tears. I will never forget the intense relief and joy that I felt as long as I live. But that wasn’t the only time that swifts have made me cry.
In the last 20 years swift numbers in this country have halved. A lack of places for them to nest is putting them at risk of disappearing altogether. They will eventually stop showing up. New buildings don’t often have the nooks and crannies that swifts need to get inside to nest, and older buildings have often had them blocked up. They have fewer and fewer places to raise their families. They desperately need your help.
Building maintenance and renovation work is of course essential but you could unwittingly be depriving Greater Manchester of one of its most special sights and sounds of summer. There are easy ways of maintaining buildings whilst still allowing swifts to nest.
You can help swifts by avoiding renovation work when they are nesting and by leaving existing nests and their access holes undisturbed, to ensure the birds still have access to nest sites after any renovation work.
You can also help by sponsoring a swift nestbox in Greater Manchester. It’s a new scheme we have set up and it costs just £90 for five-year box sponsorship. The sponsored boxes will be placed in various locations we’ve identified around the county, and will be fitted with cameras to allow us to monitor their comings and goings - when they arrive, when they lay eggs, when their chicks hatch and when they leave the nest. If you sponsor a box, you’ll receive a certificate and updates about the swifts occupying it as well as a summary of how all the nestboxes in the scheme have fared each year.
Imagine having these super birds as your neighbours! We also have an opportunity for you to put up a swift box on your own property. We will supply two boxes and a swift call attraction system (which lets them know you’ve got a room vacancy available for them) for a recommended donation of £30. For your property to be suitable you need eaves that are at least five metres from the ground, on a north or east facing wall and with a clear line of flight from the boxes.
Providing nesting sites for swifts is crucial to help turn their fortunes around, so I’m hoping this new sponsorship scheme will encourage lots of you to help this stunning summer visitor in Greater Manchester. We need them to keep showing up for the BBQ, and to remind us that there’s still sun behind those clouds.
If you think that you could either sponsor a box, or have boxes sited on your property, then please do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
Images by Mike Harris.
Last Updated: Thursday 28 February 2019