Author: Louise Bentley
Photo: Dennis Atherton
Swifts are iconic summer visitors who brighten our skies with their high-speed aerial antics. They are often noticeable at dusk, on a warm evening, darting around rooftops forming "screaming parties”, which usually indicates they are nesting close by. Being the last migrant to arrive and the first to leave, they are heralded as a true sign of summer. Swifts are the fastest bird in level flight reaching speeds of up to 69mph. Amazingly after fledging from their nest the young don’t land for up to 2 years! Swifts sleep, eat and even mate on the wing.
It’s easy to get confused! You will never see a swift perching like Swallows and Martins, they have very short legs, not adapted for a life on land. Their Latin name, Apus apus comes from Greek meaning “no feet”! Swifts are dark brown with a pale throat patch, though can appear jet black against the sky, they are a distinctive arc or boomerang shape, with a short-forked tail. Unlike Swallows or House Martins, they don't build a mud nest but find a hole or crevice to nest in. If you can see a nest it’s not a Swift!
Listen to their call
After their arrival from Africa in early May swifts quickly look for a nest space, they nest almost exclusively in the eaves of buildings. Albeit ancient trees in Abernethy, Scotland and some cliff faces do provide natural nesting places. Swifts are faithful to their partner and meet each spring at the nest site, they then spend the summer raising a single brood of just one or two chicks or "swiftlets" as they are known. Swifts will return year after year to the same colony.
A swift's diet consists entirely of insects and airborne spiders that they catch on the wing. Swifts will travel far and wide to feed and will even fly hundreds of miles around storms to reach better feeding areas. They can often be seen in good numbers over water bodies. It is vital that injured swifts, whilst being rehabilitated are fed live insects, without which their bones will not form properly and they will be unable to fly.
Swifts are in trouble. Their breeding numbers plummeted by 47 per cent between 1995-2014, making them an amber-listed species on the list of Birds of Conservation Concern. Since we cleared our ancient forests swifts have nested happily alongside us but unfortunately due to changes in building regulations and materials they can no longer access the eaves of buildings. This is thought to be ones of the main causes of their decline in the UK but they may also be adversely affected by the mass use of insecticides which reduce the insect population.
By installing a swift nest box and ideally by playing swifts calls to attract them to the new nest site. Swifts are colonial breeders and will take to boxes if they think it's an existing colony. It's best to put up two boxes though. Why not encourage your school, office or church to do the same? Visit one of the websites below for details of the boxes and Action for Swifts.
It's very simple to provide new homes for swifts with internal nesting bricks. There are now new, low cost options available on the market which include the Manthorpe brick, developed by the RSPB and Barratt’s, details can be found at www.manthorpe.co.uk. The new CJ Wildlife “Cambridge swift system” is another good option, www.birdfood.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can help by reporting existing nest sites, so we can build a clear picture of where our swifts are in Greater Manchester. The best time to survey for swifts is at dusk on a warm, still evening. Listen out for their distinctive call, if you see them low flying at rooftop height that's a good indication that they are nesting close by. Please send your records in to the Greater Manchester Local Record Centre using the simple form or via GMLRC RODIS if you are an existing user.
Please include information on what the birds were doing. It is especially important to record birds flying low over the rooftops screeching (breeding code D - courtship & Display) and any seen entering a building where they are likely to be nesting (breeding code ON - Occupied Nest). If you have any questions about how to record your observations please email email@example.com.
The RSPB with the help of the public, local authorities and businesses hope to create a number of Swift Cities and Towns across the U.K. and hopefully Manchester will be one of these. By raising awareness and supporting the installation of new homes for swifts, they hope to bring nature back to the city.
If you would like to get involved or are interested in surveying for swifts, please contact Louise Bentley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is lots of information about Swifts online so visit the websites of: RSPB, Action for Swifts www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-projects/swifts/ or Swift Conservation, www.swift-conservation.org/. You will also find information about what to do if you find an injured or grounded swift.