A swift watch, with banging & fledging

We used to do a thing we called psychic driving, back in the days before mobile GPS, Satnav’s and tom-toms. We’d find ourselves in place without a decent map, or sometimes no map at all, and would take a leap of faith in the general direction we thought might be right – mostly we got pretty close, in the right neighbourhood at least. It was always a thrill, exhilarating to arrive at the place we wanted to be.

Think now of the tiny swift, weighing just around 40 paperclips, flying more than 6,000 miles (or 9,000km) from South Africa to London each summer to nest in the same neighbourhood, street and house ...

Imprinted in the badly fitted weatherboard is an entry hole to the attic nest, worn away by the generations of swifts pressing against the soft brick and timber as they enter and leave the nest. 


We were very privileged to see a fledgling leave the nest for the first time while swift watching on Marta Strand's terrace in last week. She had invited us with Edward and Mandy Meyer from Swift Conservation to see behaviour called 'banging' - gangs of swifts race past the nest, briefly pausing at the nest hole, sometimes clinging briefly to the bricks before moving on. It is still not known exactly what this social behaviour signifies but it is thought that it is either juveniles inspecting the nest, imprinting it in their memories, or some sort of communal encouragement to the young to leave the nest.

As a group, swifts are the fastest of all birds in level flight (the peregrine is the fastest of all birds, but only in a steep dive called a stoop). The top speed recorded in a recent scientific study was 111.6km/h (69.3mph) Studies have revealed some startling facts - particularly their ability to fly long distances. It is estimated that swifts fly an average daily total of 800 km - nearly 500 miles! That's about 2 million km (more than 1.24 million miles) in a lifetime!

But surely one of the most extraordinary facts has got to be that after a journey of 9,000km (6,000 miles) they find their way back to the same nest hole. This is why its so critical to by mindful of swifts in our cities.

Sharing your house with swifts is a great privilege. They are unobtrusive when nesting and make perfect, quiet neighbours. Edward Meyer’s blog included some amazing facts about swifts, there are more at the RSPB as well as a form which allows you to record sightings of your own to help make informed planning decisions to help protect swifts. These also go onto the National Biodiversity Network where they can be viewed by anyone.

Catherine du Toit
Catherine du Toit