Be part of a swift success story

Guide
A juvenile swift on a wooden wall

“I woke up really early the other day and was lying listening to the dawn chorus when I heard it: wheeeee wheeeeeee wheeeeeeee! And I just jumped up, because I knew they were back.”

A juvenile swift on a wooden wall

The arrival of swifts signals the start of summer, but every spring most of us are seeing fewer of these mysterious birds migrate back to our towns and cities. Swift fans across the UK have been taking action to try and help their local swifts make a comeback.

Read on to find out what they’ve been up to, and how you can join in.

John Day has a passion for swifts.

“I’ve got four swift boxes around my bedroom windows,” he says. “When I started, the nearest nesting swifts were about a kilometre away from where I live. There are now several pairs all looking for nests near my house, lured in by the single pair that set up home in one of my boxes. It’s not a simple, overnight task, you’ve got to work at it a bit and have everything set up right. But if they do move in, it’s fantastic.”


Give swifts a warm welcome at your home

Swifts don’t build mud cups like swallows or house martins. Instead, they use little holes under the eaves of houses, or in gaps in walls, squeezing in and then creating a nest inside from spider silk, feathers, leaves and even small pieces of windblown paper, all caught on the wing. Modern houses don’t have many of these gaps, and as older houses are improved, swifts are being shut out.

Specially-designed nest boxes can really help swifts by giving them a place to raise a family. But adding one to your house isn’t quite like putting up a box for blue tits. They have to be installed high up on a building with at least a 5-metre drop and clearance in front to give the swifts clear flight access. With safety issues to consider, putting one up is a job best left for people who are used to working at height.

“I had a window cleaner put mine up,” says John. “But you could also wait until you’re having other work done, like the roof checked or the gutters cleared out, and ask the person going up the ladder if they’d mind putting up a swift box at the same time.”

But swift boxes are only half the solution. You also need patience as it can take a few seasons to have success. One thing you can try is tempting them in by playing a recording of their screaming calls from your window. 

You may also find that as swifts arrive back so late in the spring, they sometimes miss out to other birds.

“Swift boxes have holes designed to keep larger birds out,” says John. “But smaller birds such as house sparrows, blue and great tits and even house martins, have all been recorded using swift boxes. That’s okay, of course, as all birds need a place to nest! But it’s a good idea to try putting up several boxes so that there’s more chance there’s one free for your swifts when they return.”

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Inspire a swift change at work

Like John, Berry Mulligan and his family have been helping swifts from their Cambridgeshire home for years.

“We put six swift boxes in our loft, and in the first year, some swifts showed some interest. We helped get the colony started by playing swift calls, and in the second year, a pair fledged chicks. That was the summer our daughter was born. We felt so happy and privileged to have swifts move in, we decided to name our daughter in their honour! We now have two established pairs. My wife always says they’re part of the family somehow.”

As well as putting up boxes, Sarah, who’s a volunteer for Brighton and Hove Swifts, even got some installed at the school where she works:

“I arranged a meeting with a colleague at school who runs our eco council. This led to creating a swift day where we learned all about them, made artistic images, and the eco council conducted an assembly. We made posters and ran an after-school fundraiser for boxes, where we had support from local swift experts and our school keeper was very much on board. So far, no inhabitants, but we play the swift caller each morning and evening."

“This year we took swifts as our theme for participating in the Brighton children's parade; our city area's theme was about nature and regeneration after the pandemic. Swifts seemed very appropriate, so with a colleague and a band of 50 children we made poetry and chants about swifts and their unique and wonderful features, with a set of whistles to mimic their scream. On a walk the next day I saw my first swift of the season.”

In Belfast, Claire Barnett even shared her passion for putting up swift boxes with a local Boys Brigade club!

“Once I hear the scream of a swift for the first time each year, my heart literally skips a beat! The bird caller is turned on beside the nest boxes of my home and I eagerly await the interest of some swifts in need of a new or first home. I have also been working closely with the 1st Banbridge Boys’ Brigade in County Down, and as a lockdown project they all started building swift boxes. There are now over 40 across their homes, and two of the boxes were occupied the first year they went up.”

Spark a swift revolution in your community

In the late 1980s, Martin Garwood from Tonbridge in Kent was lucky enough to find swifts nesting behind a ventilation brick on his house. But he decided to take a more active role in helping the species, when his local church were carrying out repairs to its tower.

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Photo: Martin Garwood

“The loss of a strong breeding colony seemed symptomatic to me of the dramatic decline in numbers, not just over our town but nationally. And so, I became a swift activist. Wind forward 30-plus years, and the decline in swift numbers has continued unabated. Locally I have encouraged neighbours to put up boxes and enjoy their swifts, formed a Facebook group to share activities, badgered the local authority and developers to take action, written articles and many letters, given talks, and set up exhibitions. We now have a strong Facebook following, some dozen pairs nesting in our road and more boxes still going up. The developer of our new medical centre has been persuaded to install swift bricks and the church tower once more provides a welcome to these wonderful birds with the addition of special nest boxes. I have a further two boxes on my house now and, as I write, await the return of the two pairs that live there. Without swifts, it would not be a summer.”

Colm Ó Caomhánaigh’s interest in swifts started in 2018 when he took part in a survey organised by the RSPB as part of the Oxford Swift City project. Through this project, he’s helped to distribute wildflower seeds and 350 swift boxes around the city.

“Swift numbers do seem to have been stable in Oxford for the last few years, so hopefully our actions have helped to at least stop the declines. Our work has also inspired a lot of people to take action themselves, and our volunteers and members are growing every year! We’ve shared materials now with other groups right across Oxfordshire and beyond who want to survey their areas and find out how many swifts they have. A local school recently raised almost £1000 for our work, and we hope to use that money to provide nest boxes for areas that our survey showed have a lot of swift nests. By targeting these areas, we can make sure that these swifts have an alternative available should their usual homes be blocked up.”

Lesley Totten is a volunteer for the RSPB’s Swift City project in Edinburgh, and over winter they’ve been meeting up over Zoom to share ideas. Lesley even shared her love of poetry to inspire others.

“My knowledge has improved through the project and I was able to locate and monitor my local nest sites throughout the season. I love the excuse to do “a bit of citizen science” and used the Swift Mapper app, as well as helping other local birders to record their own sightings. As a teacher, my school community also became involved. We managed to: secure a donation of timber, design flat-pack nest box kits, involve our pupils in constructing the nest-boxes, and install three on our school building. It was joyous to witness the Edinburgh swifts return this year, welcomed by insect-attracting wildflowers and new nest-boxes.”

Barbara Porter also volunteers with the Edinburgh Swift project. She’d been watching her local swift population decline over 20 years, and jumped at the chance to do something about it.

“I joined the Casework Group working to make planning decisions to favour swifts, helped install over 40 swift nest boxes in one of the towers of Edinburgh’s Episcopal cathedral, and carried out numerous swift surveys. One of my friends got involved too and her street became one of the survey streets. And the children in my neighbourhood were soon scanning the sky for swifts."

“Of course there were disappointments: standing on street corners for hours with not a swift to be seen, unsuccessful nest boxes, yet more herbicides sprayed on our streets. But I can’t wait to hear the first screaming party in 2022. If enough people are inspired to join together to take even small actions, together we can make the difference and swifts will continue to grace our skies.”

With so many brilliant things happening for swifts all over the UK, hopefully it won’t be too many years before we start to see them making a comeback! If the stories above have inspired you to help your local swifts this summer, then check out the links below.

Because, as Barbara says, amazing things really can happen when lots of people take small actions to save nature.

How you can help swifts

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Photo: Martin Garwood

  • Buy a swift nest box. If you can, start by putting up a couple and add to them over time to form a colony
  • Build your own swift nest box
  • Let us know where you see nesting swifts or ‘screaming parties’ by putting your records on Swift Mapper. This is a desktop or mobile app which allows people to enter records from anywhere in the country https://www.rspb.org.uk/swiftmapper
  • Join one of the many Swift Local Network (SLN) groups taking action around the country. A list of groups can be found by clicking the SLN link on the Action for Swifts website
  • Alternatively, you can get advice from SLN about starting a group in your area
  • Both Action for Swifts and Swifts Conservation have lots of helpful case studies on their websites that will solve just about every scenario you might run into when providing a nest for swifts

 

A wall-mounted swift nest box from the RSPB shop

Give a swift a home

Putting up a home for migratory birds is an great way to help on your own patch.

£42.00

Buy now