Read this and love Swifts!

Today we're delighted to post a text that Edward Mayer of Swift Conservation shares with us, in it he writes about his reasons to love Swifts and outlines a three point plan to help saving them from terminal decline. We hope after reading it you'll find a new love in these birds! 

Swift over water: David Moreton

There’s nothing like Swifts for brightening up our lives. Only Swifts can add such dash, excitement and drama to the sky. Nothing else can get near to flying like that, and bring that something extra special to the skies above even the grimmest townscape. A summer migrant, arriving in May, Swifts can spend just 12 weeks here in the UK, enough to raise one brood of chicks, and then they have to get back to Equatorial Africa before it becomes too cold.

Common Swift, Wikipedia

The UK’s fastest bird in level flight, the Swift is an aerodynamic marvel. Recent research by aerodynamic engineers has found that Swifts use very advanced technologies; leading edge vortex creation, and high aspect ratio wings, as well as swing-wing ability give them their amazing agility in the air while retaining an ability to stop dead from high speed flight when landing in a confined space.

A swift drinking on the wing: Marc Guyt

Swifts are so adapted for a life on the wing that they cannot perch, and can only shuffle when on a flat surface. They never land on the ground unless in serious trouble; they spend all their life on the wing apart from when in the nest. It makes sense.

But we take Swifts for granted. Screaming as they dash amongst the roofs, we think they’ll always be there to brighten up our summers. The British Trust for Ornithology's Breeding Bird Survey tells another story. Because of their recent rapid decline, Swifts are now “Amber Listed”.

A "screaming party" of Swifts rockets past nest boxes: Bernard Genton

Why has this happened? There are two possibilities, both I think rather obvious, but still much debated. The first concerns developments in the UK's building stock limiting the availability of nest places; the second questions whether the agricultural insecticides used within modern intensive cultivation are adversely affecting availability of Swifts’ aerial insect food.

95% of the UK's Swifts nest in open eaves, under loose roof tiles or in holes in walls (Homes for Wildlife, RSPB, 2008). But those holes and crevices are lacking in new, insulated and renovated properties, because of recent more stringent building regulations, new materials and techniques, the pressing need to insulate old properties, and because nest places are inadvertently removed or obstructed during repairs. Apertures in buildings now have to be sealed or fitted with grilles, roof tiles are fitted without gaps, and we no longer tolerate leaving old holes in walls.

A swift flying out from the pantiles: Bill Ball

With massive activity in recent years in property redevelopment, refurbishment and more recently, insulation, across both the UK and Europe, we have observed that Swifts are being deprived of their old nest places at a frightening speed.

One example: where post-communism large-scale building reconstruction and renovation works have taken place, as in the former East Germany, subsequent declines of up to 70% in the Swift population have been reported.

There has likewise been near-total elimination of Swifts in the UK’s rebuilt town centres such as Peterborough, and for that matter, London too, while large populations still remain in the centre of better preserved cities, such as Rome, Barcelona and Madrid.

In the UK, the Swift is now mostly a bird of Victorian and Edwardian streets, where there are buildings with open eaves or gables that can host their nests, and as these are refurbished, sealed and insulated, the species’ likely future will be confined to those historic buildings still rich in holes, cracks and crevices, where its occupation is tolerated.

Swifts nesting in a domestic gable: Chris Richards

The other issue concerns agricultural insecticides. With the recent intensification of the UK's agriculture, with the year-round planting of crops and a lessening in the use of fallow periods, there are fewer and fewer periods of respite from insecticide treatment.

The sudden collapse of the UK populations of such pure insectivores as Cuckoos and Spotted Flycatchers may I think turn out to be linked to increases in insecticide use, as well as the use of more effective insecticides. Swifts too are pure insectivores, and while they possess supreme mobility and can fly many miles in search of food, a general dearth of their flying insect food will inevitably have a big effect on them.

So even if we take action now, it's going to be very hard to bring Swifts back to their former numbers. They are slow breeders, and are sometimes very slow indeed to find new places to breed. There is some evidence that their post-breeding aerobatic group activity is the key to encouraging young Swifts to seek out nest places, so population declines could lead also to a decline in attempts to find a nest.

But we must try to help them, and there are certainly proven ways we can do it. Swift Conservation’s three-point plan, if widely adopted, could stem the decline. It encourages developers, planners, local authorities as well as householders to:

  • Preserve Swift nest places in existing buildings
  • Replace nest places lost through building work and demolition
  • Build internal nest places into as many new buildings as possible

Nest place preservation is the best option for existing buildings and it is easy, as long as it is planned into the building project. There are simple ways of doing this and Swift Conservation can advise on a suitable strategy for a very wide range of building types.

Replacing lost nests is easy too. One way is to substitute a ‘Swift Brick’ for every old nest place.

Another is to make a ‘Swift Eaves Nest Box’ to replace en bloc lost nests in the old eaves.

Getting Swift Bricks into new buildings is very much a matter of persuading local authorities and developers to require their inclusion via the Planning process. A recent and most encouraging example is Liverpool’s new Everyman Theatre, which has just opened with 10 Swift bricks in its walls, a great step in the right direction!

The Liverpool Everyman Theatre: Stirling Prize-winning architecture with embedded Swift Bricks: MS Mayer

There are more and more UK companies making Swift Bricks, and as a result there is a good choice of different types at varying prices, and the same is also true of Swift nest boxes; the choice available is far better than ever before.

Further action that would help Swifts could be:

  • Year round protection of their breeding sites, as provided by our laws for bats, would ensure they have somewhere to nest in an increasingly inhospitable environment
  • A total ban on the use of insecticides outdoors in urban areas, unless required by the public health authorities, which could help them find sufficient food

Unless we provide for Swifts right now, within a few years there will be very few places left for them to nest in. This would be a terrible failure. If we cannot support one of the most dramatic and exciting birds we have, a bird that above all others, can lift our spirits to the skies, can we save anything, or are we headed for a world where everything that doesn’t make money is to be eliminated?

Mind you, in Italy local authorities are encouraging Swifts, Swallows and Bats with free nest boxes to control accidentally introduced alien mosquito populations carrying very serious untreatable diseases like West Nile Virus and Chikungunya; now there's a thought!

So let’s be positive! You can help Swifts, it’s easy and fun. If you are an Architect, Planner or Developer, design in some Swift bricks into every new building of two stories high or more. There are more and more choices available.

Alternatively, you can make your own home a Swifts’ home. Preserve their existing nest places when re-roofing or replacing soffits, and put up some Swift nest boxes. You'll be rewarded all summer long with aerobatics, drama, and delight.

For practical advice on how to help Swifts, plus contacts and nest box and nest brick sales links see our web site at

Edward Mayer

Catherine du Toit
Catherine du Toit