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Swifts return to our skies

April 2017

photo by Alain Georgy


Swifts are about to return to our skies for another year, and they are the last migrant to arrive and will be the first to leave, staying with us for less than 4 months of the year. Each summer they fly from Africa to the UK to nest and raise their chicks, and over the course of their 6,000 mile journey they never touch the ground. Swifts spend all their lives on the wing - eating, sleeping and mating, never touching the ground. They are also our fastest bird in level flight (top recorded speed is 69.3mph), out-gunned only by the peregrine’s stoop. Their dark sickle-shaped wings and screaming banshee-esque call as they soar over rooftops on a warm evening makes Swifts a quintessential sign of summer.

We may see even less of this charismatic species, however, if their rate of decline continues on its current trajectory. The UK population declined by an alarming 47% between 1995-2014. We're not sure why they are in such dire straits, but one of the possible reasons is that their nest sites are being destroyed. Swifts tend to nest in the nooks and crannies of old buildings; exactly the kind of buildings that are demolished or renovated with previous nest sites being wiped out.

photo by Steve Blain

Scientists think that swifts may fly a 500 mile round trip on a foraging mission (that’s like popping over the English Channel just for lunch) – but more research is under way to find out more about the feeding behaviour of these birds. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been tagging swifts in England for many years to look at local foraging movements. And last year a collaboration between the BTO, RSPB Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Swift Group deployed a dozen Swifts with GPS tags in 2016 to shed light on key feeding areas. These mini ‘GPS backpacks’ weigh less than 1 gram - around 2% of a Swift’s body weight, and data was collected throughout the breeding season, recording the locations of the tagged Swifts at approximately half-hourly intervals, with an accuracy of just a few metres. Thanks to this research scientists are now learning more about where nesting birds from specific colonies go to look for food when they leave the nest, and are looking at differences in behaviour between birds nesting in urban versus more rurally-located colonies.

To help swifts we can make buildings more inviting and secure for them by installing a nest box or specially created “swift bricks” with holes for the birds to nest in. If you already have nesting swifts, avoid any non essential house renovation work during the breeding season. In order to gather more data on this bird the RSPB is asking people to report sightings of swifts all over the UK in the Swift survey.

Find more RSPB stories here.

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