How to help swifts feel at home af­ter their win­ter hol­i­days

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

TO be­gin, here’s a chal­lenge: you have to read the fol­low­ing sen­tence to a friend with­out tak­ing a breath, and see how much they can take in.

“Hi Sean, there are three kinds of black birds fly­ing over my gar­den; well, one is a black­bird, and I know that, but there are lots of the other two black birds, in fact there’s loads of one of the other black birds, and they look a bit blue and are much big­ger than the nor­mal black­bird, and I saw one eat­ing a baby bird, and the other black bird flies around in groups screech­ing, and I saw one dead on the road and it was brown, do you know what they are?”

And so goes the an­swer-phone mes­sage from a reader who wishes to re­main name­less, but she’s let­ting me use the mes­sage any­way, af­ter I told her, be­tween bouts of laugh­ter that, it was the fun­ni­est things I’d heard for years.

Thank­fully she agreed, and I was able to iden­tify firstly, jack­daws and se­condly, swifts. Jack­daws I love, but not as much as I love swifts; once known as the Devil-Birds be­cause of their high-pitched scream­ing in flight, but also be­cause in days gone by, their mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance in late sum­mer and re­turn in late spring was deemed to be highly sus­pi­cious and ob­vi­ously mas­ter­minded by Old Nick. They are brown but ap­pear black in flight.

Of course it was noth­ing of the sort, and these long dis­tance mi­grants are al­ways last here and first to leave for Africa af­ter rear­ing their young, last that is apart from some adult cuck­oos, some of which are al­ready well on the way to win­ter quar­ters, af­ter leav­ing other birds to bring up their young. Both cuck­oos and swifts have de­clined in re­cent years, but prob­a­bly for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, with the for­mer, droughts and bad weather as they tra­verse the Sa­hara, and maybe even a de­cline in some foster- birds such as the meadow pipit, while the for­mer could be strug­gling be­cause of a lack of nest sites. Although lots of peo­ple are help­ing swifts when they ar­rive in the UK for sum­mer, sadly there are many who are mak­ing their lives harder, and some­times in­ad­ver­tently, says the RSPB. John Day, ur­ban ad­vi­sor for the wildlife char­ity, says: “Many peo­ple have re­ally taken these in­cred­i­ble birds to heart and lots of peo­ple are step­ping up to do all they can to help them once they ar­rive in the skies above our towns and cities.

“But, imag­ine how you would feel if you came home from hol­i­day to find your house boarded up, or worse; de­mol­ished? That is ex­actly what is hap­pen­ing to our swifts.”

Some lo­cal author­i­ties have in­stalled nest-box bricks into new build­ings, and one has even gone to great lengths to retro­fit the bricks into ex­ist­ing build­ings.

Like­wise, a few for­ward think­ing con­struc­tion com­pa­nies are also fit­ting nest-box bricks into new build­ings and halt­ing the de­mo­li­tion of old sites un­til swifts have left. In con­trast, as fast as sites are be­ing cre­ated, some peo­ple are putting up scaf­fold­ing and fit­ting plas­tic spikes around swift nests, pre­vent­ing ac­cess and in do­ing so, po­ten­tially com­mit­ting an of­fence.

Swifts nest al­most ex­clu­sively on build­ings, es­pe­cially old struc­tures with lots of nooks and cran­nies. The fol­low­ing sim­ple mea­sures could help the fast-dwin­dling swift pop­u­la­tion: leave any ex­ist­ing nest sites undis­turbed where pos­si­ble. Swifts will use the same nest sites again and again. If you need to carry out re­pair work on your roof or fas­cias and sof­fits, leave it un­til swifts have left af­ter the sum­mer and make new nest ac­cess holes to match the old ones at ex­actly the same spot.

If build­ing a new house, plan some in­ter­nal nest spa­ces at the de­sign stage. If you are un­able to do any of these, the other al­ter­na­tive is to fit a cus­tom-made swift box.

For more in­for­ma­tion please visit www.rspb.org.

The Laugh­ing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Pad­field, Glos­sop

●● The com­mon swift once known as a ‘Devil-Bird’

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