Swift Awareness Week

Blog post by Sarah Gibson on 01 Jul, 2021
As Swift Awareness Week (3rd - 11th July 2021) approaches, Shropshire Wildlife Trust's swift expert Sarah Gibson explores the early life of these brilliant birds as they scope out nesting sites and meet the neighbours.

"And here they are, here they are again!" Ted Hughes thrills to the swifts when they return to these shores in May. These are the first birds in a series of waves of swifts, arriving at different times according to their age and purpose. Breeders get here first, speeding back to reclaim their nests, meet up with their mates and get down to the serious business of raising a brood together. But swifts don't generally breed until they are at least four years old (the average lifespan of a swift is seven or eight years), so why do younger birds also make the 5,000-mile journey from Africa?
 

Aerial Life

These birds have been flying without cease ever since the moment they launched into the air from the safe, dark nest in which they hatched. From there they straight away headed south for Africa: snapping up airborne insects, sipping water from lakes on the wing, preening their feathers in elegant aerial manoeuvres and spiralling up into the sky at dusk to sleep and orient themselves. Flying is simply what a swift does, all of the time, unless grounded by misfortune - most likely in the shape of persistent, torrential rain. However, their return to the part of the world in which they hatched is purposeful.

They come to seek a nest and a mate and to establish their place within the loose, colonial territories that swifts form during the breeding season. Finding a nesting hole takes time but they have an instinct for suitable places and are often attracted by calls from their own kind. Swifts prefer to nest high up, under the eaves of buildings or in crevices in the masonry, searching for an entrance hole to a hidden space where they can make their dish-like nest of feathers, tree seeds and other materials blown up into the air and glued together with saliva.
 

Bangers

Swift by Peter Hazlehurst

Swift by Peter Hazlehurst

Early in the morning you might see them silently and leisurely flying around the eaves, sometimes brushing or knocking a wing against a likely hole. These are the 'bangers' - young birds checking out whether these places are suitable, occupied or empty. If a hole has already been claimed, the resident swift will come to the entrance and scream at them to 'clear off'!

Another good way for them to find a nesting hole is to listen and look out for sparrows, which often (but not always) choose the same sort of places as swifts. Their insistent cheeping will show swifts just where these are. There may be scuffles between the two species - sparrows, like starlings, have been known to launch themselves on the backs of swifts to drive them off - but the bigger bird is usually the winner.
 

Spectacular Circuits​

Now, with the last wave of immature birds back in our skies, we have peak numbers of swifts to enjoy. It is the young, non-breeding birds which give us one of the most evocative and spectacular sights of summer. You may see them on a fine evening, racing their breath-taking aerial circuits in packs, searing the air with speed and screeching as they go. Swifts have been recorded flying at 69.3 miles per hour during these display flights. Breeding birds may sometimes come out and join them for a few circuits; it is a social activity that strengthens the bond between individuals in the colony, which may cover a street or a block. Maintaining territory helps reduce conflict between birds searching for nest sites.

Swift by Peter Hazlehurst

Swifts and Us by Sarah Gibson

Finding a nesting hole is the most crucial thing a swift has to do. Today though, that is becoming a tougher task. Renovation of old buildings almost always results in access to their holes being blocked, while new housing tends to be sealed completely against nature. Modern building materials, such as plastic soffits, offer little potential for future weathering and gaps opening up. Somehow, we need to make provision for nesting swifts - and urgently.


What you can do to help

Retaining existing nest holes is the best thing you can do as swifts are very site faithful. If carrying out roof renovation or insulation during the summer, ensure that access holes are not blocked by scaffolding and that they're retained for the future.

Installing a swift box or two, at least five metres high, is a great way to help swifts but it can take time for the birds to find them. Playing swift calls can speed things up. If you're thinking of buying a newly-built house, ask your builder to incorporate swift bricks.

Help swifts find food by gardening in a wildlife-friendly way. Insects from your garden may spiral into the air and be snapped up by the birds.

Sarah Gibson is Communications Officer for Shropshire Wildlife Trust and is the author of 'Swifts and Us: The Life of the Bird that Sleeps in the Sky'.

Header image: Swift by Elizabeth Dack

Share this

Latest Blog Posts

Cley Calling: Closer to Home Festival Review Cley Calling: Closer to Hom...
by Evie York on 29 Jul, 2021
Day Flying Moths Day Flying Moths
by Robert Morgan on 17 Jul, 2021
Bishop's Garden July Update: From Moths to Wild Flowers Bishop's Garden July Update...
by Barry Madden on 15 Jul, 2021
Exploring Living Landscapes: Finding Common Ground and connecting young people with nature Exploring Living Landscapes...
by Meg Watts on 24 Jun, 2021
A 30 Days Wild Minibeast Hunt A 30 Days Wild Minibeast Hunt
by The Wildlife Trusts on 17 Jun, 2021
Secrets of the Water Vole Secrets of the Water Vole
by Kelly Hollings on 10 Jun, 2021
Wild Gardening for Small Budgets & Spaces Wild Gardening for Small Bu...
by Meg Watts on 03 Jun, 2021
Bishop's Garden May Update: A World of Wild Flowers Bishop's Garden May Update:...
by Barry Madden on 27 May, 2021
Walking the Eastern Coast Walking the Eastern Coast
by Katy Ellis on 20 May, 2021
Good for us, Good for Nature Good for us, Good for Nature
by Robert Morgan on 13 May, 2021
Take a stroll with us for National Walking Month Take a stroll with us for N...
by Chloe Webb on 06 May, 2021
International Dawn Chorus Day 2021 International Dawn Chorus D...
by Robert Morgan on 29 Apr, 2021
The Humble House Sparrow The Humble House Sparrow
by Tom Hibbert on 15 Apr, 2021
Bishop's Garden March Update: A Haven for Birds Bishop's Garden March Updat...
by Barry Madden on 01 Apr, 2021
Meet our Diversity Intern Meet our Diversity Intern
by Meg Watts on 25 Mar, 2021
Growing Wild in the City Growing Wild in the City
by Sam Garland on 11 Mar, 2021
International Women's Day 2021: Women in conservation International Women's Day 2...
by Meg Watts on 08 Mar, 2021
World Book Day 2021 World Book Day 2021
by Chloe Webb on 04 Mar, 2021
Identifying diving ducks Identifying diving ducks
by The Wildlife Trusts on 11 Jan, 2021
Remembering Richard Waddingham – farmer and pond conservationist Remembering Richard Wadding...
by Helen Baczkowska on 17 Dec, 2020
Wild verges Wild verges
by Sam Brown on 08 Dec, 2020
Thwaite Common bird box project Thwaite Common bird box pro...
by John Snape on 30 Nov, 2020
Jewels of the autumn Jewels of the autumn
by Ian Senior on 20 Nov, 2020
Walking again at Thorpe Marshes Walking again at Thorpe Mar...
by Chris Durdin on 06 Nov, 2020