Strongly associated with buildings and summer skies, the swift is the poster bird for urban nature conservation. The fastest bird in level flight, built for speed and to stay on the wing - including to eat, drink, preen and mate - they only land to nest and raise their young.
They are widespread, well-loved and in trouble. We've lost over half of our swifts in just 20 years, and they are suffering a 4% decline year on year: but there are things we can all do to help. The reasons for the losses are complex and geographically widespread thanks to their annual migration from Africa, but we do know that they need three main things to ensure their success: plenty of flying invertebrates to eat mid-air; safe migration routes; and long-term nesting sites. The Wildlife Trusts work hard on the first one, providing nature reserves and Living Landscapes that support a diverse range of wildlife; the second is trickier, as they travel each year to Africa and back, though raising awareness of these birds is an important part of looking after their routes; and the third is where you come in.
Here are some things you can do this winter to make a real difference for the birds returning next summer.
How you can help
Preserve existing nest sites
Swifts return to the same nest site year after year, and take a long time to establish a new site if their favoured places disappear due to building work, demolition or blocked access. If you know that swifts are nesting in your building, it's important to maintain access so that returning swifts are not driven away. They can live for around twenty years, so that can mean many successive visits!
Install a swift nestbox
If you have a wall that's at least five metres tall, with a clear flyway in front, then you could install a swift box or brick onto your own home. Modern house designs are often nook-and-cranny-free when it comes to their roof and eaves, but there are many designs of swift box that can be installed to replace these once-common nest sites and encourage them back to your neighbourhood.
As swifts spend much of the year in southern Africa and are only in the UK from late April to August, they only spend about 10 to 12 weeks in their nests. Unlike other birds, they don't usually leave piles of droppings under their nest places, so they're incredibly trouble-free tenants.
There are many commercial swift boxes available, including this one from Vine House Farm, which you can buy online from their shop. This one can be used in place of a conventional brick when building, or mounted on the side of a wall.
If you want to build your own - and this may be the best option if you have a particular space you want to fill under your eaves - then Action for Swifts have a wide range of nest box designs on their website. These include some which are fine for use on a south-facing wall, with in-built protection from the heat of the sun.
If at all possible, internal nest sites are preferable to external boxes, as they are much easier to maintain and will last much longer. But any box is a win for swifts, so we're encouraging everyone to do whatever they can.
You may have to be patient. It can take a few years for swifts to find your box, and even when they do, they may not breed for the first year or two. You can encourage them to investigate your new box by playing swift calls nearby, and there is guidance on this on the Swift Conservation website.
Get the owners of local tall buildings involved
Swift nestboxes or bricks are relatively small and can be extremely unobtrusive. Even larger boxes can be designed to blend in to buildings, such as this one of ours at Trumpington Meadows, and there are plenty of examples of churches installing boxes in belfries and louvres that are completely invisible from the outside but support very successful colonies of birds.
Tall buildings such as churches, car parks, offices and warehouses can often be ideal for installing several boxes to encourage a colony to establish. Action for Swifts have had much success and there are several case studies on their website, including St Neots Church, where 46 nest boxes have been installed which continue to be occupied.
Is there a tall building near you that could be ideal? Could you talk to your local parish council or church steward to discuss the idea? Does your workplace have the perfect wall? Swifts need us to have these conversations!
And, come April 2019... report your sightings
In order to get a better idea of where to focus conservation efforts, we need to know where swifts are already congregating and nesting - and how many we have in our three counties. That means we need you to report where you see them when they return in late April 2019 and through their nesting season, especially if you know they are nesting or gathering for 'screaming parties' where they congregate on the wing and rise into the air calling to each other with the distinctive screech that earned them the nickname 'devil bird'. Knowing where swifts are nesting, we can help to protect them by giving advice and keeping an eye out for any building repair or renovation work.
We'll be collecting sightings across all three counties. Check back here when you see them in 2019 and help us to keep track of our swifts in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.
What we're doing for swifts
As well as maintaining our nature reserves for the benefit of all the wildlife that thrives there, which includes providing habitat to ensure the invertebrates are abundant, we also advise other landowners on the management of their land. By working together, we are creating a Living Landscape, joining up our reserves and Local Wildlife Sites with other green spaces including churchyards, road verges, meadows and parkland. In this way, our work supports swifts along with all other wildlife.
Swifts recently moved into our new 10-chamber colony box at Trumpington Meadows in Cambridgeshire in the very first year (you can read a news story about that here). In Northamptonshire, All Saints Church, Easton-on-the-Hill, who are part of our Churchyard Conservation Awards scheme, have erected swift boxes and hope to see residents soon. We are working with a number of other churches to encourage swift box installation. Watch this space for news.
Cambourne in Cambridgeshire, where the Trust HQ is situated, was built with wildlife in mind, and that includes swifts. We are currently working to make the village even more swift friendly.
We also have many inspired and engaged volunteers who are doing their bit. Graham Bellamy and others in Bedfordshire have started a Bedfordshire Swift Action Group with Bedfordshire Bird Club and the Bedfordshire Natural History Society. Mark Fitzpatrick in Cambridgeshire has secured funding to help monitoring of a colony in Gamlingay.
We hope you can help us do more!
The swift conservation community
There are many organisations working tirelessly to help save these scimitar birds. Here are a selection, all of which have further information about ways you can help.