Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust charts the fading fortunes of the swift
PUBLISHED: 21:05 22 May 2013 | UPDATED: 21:06 22 May 2013
A recent survey suggests we love our garden birds more than ever, but in towns and cities wildlife can sometimes disappear unnoticed. Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust charts the fading fortunes of one globe-trotting summer visitor
A million miles – it’s a long way really isn’t it? In fact, it’s pretty much the distance to the moon and back. Twice. But that’s the air miles that one visitor to Britain can clock up in a lifetime. The swift – arriving in the skies near you this month – is aptly named. It’s pretty much all wings, a small tail and a huge mouth at the other end. The swallow apparently doesn’t make the summer, but the swift is certainly the real deal when it comes to frequent flyer credentials.
You’ve probably seen swifts before and never realised. They’re the ones wheeling around in high-pitched squealing groups above the rooftops performing stomach-turning g-force turns. Swallows might perch conveniently on fenceposts and farmyard roofs, while house martins gather in noisy chattering flocks on telegraph wires, but the swift is all about the air. So much so, that it spends nearly all of its life in the skies and when first fledged might very well stay on the wing for about two years non-stop.
Perhaps another reason for swifts being overlooked is their late arrival in spring. By the time they head to the UK in May, it seems the excitement of seeing the first swallows and cuckoos has subsided and they slip in quietly, unassuming and unannounced. Their stay here is brief too, while swallows might still be trying for a third and final summer brood in August, the swifts are already heading back again. It’s almost as if you don’t notice they’ve gone.
And there perhaps is the problem, because these aerial marvels are in swift decline – quite literally. During the last decade alone, we think around a third of the UK’s swifts have disappeared. Like many of the drops in our urban birds, scientists are largely puzzled by the dramatic losses. One thing we do know is that swifts have a penchant for period properties – and modernisation could be at the heart of the gradual disappearance of this aerial icon.
An RSPB study of 3,400 swift nests in 2010 found more than three-quarters living on houses – with half of those on properties around 100 years old. Although swifts have the same protection as all UK birds when it comes to their nests, the overall loss of their preferred hollows in roof spaces has probably left thousands of swifts homeless as they return to nest sites that might have been used for a decade or more, only to find PVC cladding or other improvements in their way.
Unlike their largely rural counterparts the swallows, swifts need high-rise urban living. Finely tuned to life in the air, swifts do best with a place where they can launch out – usually found at least two or three stories up.
The truth is, as we’ve embraced steel, glass and quite rightly, energy saving methods to keep our homes and offices weather-tight, the crevices and holes that for generations swifts could call home are now few and far between.
So where does this leave our swifts? Fortunately, help could be at hand in the shape of an innovative approach from, rather appropriately, the construction trade.
Rather than working around the traditional holes and crevices that swifts need, new building projects are now being urged to integrate ‘swift bricks’ into their top courses. A self-contained nesting unit with a small entrance hole, specifically designed for swifts’ needs, the bricks mean that structural integrity and weather-proofing isn’t compromised, and the swifts get the high-residence they need.
Even if you’re not building from scratch, you can still give swift boxes a go on the outside of the property. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll find yourself with some well travelled neighbours, who’ve quite literally been to the moon and back.
Home from home
Unfortunately it’s not just swifts that are struggling on the housing ladder. House martins and swallows are also experiencing sharp declines as their traditional haunts of barns and outbuildings are converted or modernised.
Not to be outdone by the swifts though, these summer visitors are also spoilt for choice by the production of veritable des res in man-made materials. Imitating the carefully crafted mud-brick constructions of their own beaks, ‘woodcrete’ swallow and house martin nests are now available at a very reasonable price making it both a buyers and a seller’s market.
For the best chance of attracting new feathered neighbours, try siting a handful of nest opportunities together – house martins in particular like communal living – and with any luck they may even move in next door with their own self-build project. Swallows prefer the overhang of a stable, barn or outbuilding as their own nests remain a little more open to the elements.
And if the inevitable results of a brood of chicks creates too much of a cleaning job, place a small shelf just below the nest to catch any dropping before they hit the ground. It’s important to remember too that however frustrating an existing swallow or house martin nest may be, its destruction at any point during construction or nesting is breaking the law and is punishable under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981).
Mud glorious mud
It wasn’t a problem we had last summer, but in dry weather swallows and house martins can struggle to find the mud they need for nest building. In extended hot, dry summer periods you can help by being a backyard bird builders’ merchants and supply a tray of wet mud, or keep a regular muddy area next to your pond. If you already have swallows and house martins nearby they’ll be especially thankful!
Have you got some unusual garden neighbours? Why not share your experiences with Cheshire Wildlife Trust via our Facebook and Twitter pages.