How to help swifts feel at home after their winter holidays
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’