Here is a guest blog post kindly written for us by John Davison of Selly Oak, who is a keen Swift enthusiast spreading the word about what we can do to encourage these acrobatic but sadly declining birds. Swifts will start arriving any day now after their long migration from Africa so now is the perfect time to start looking out for them in your area! For further information about Swift conservation please visit http://www.swift-conservation.org/.
I moved into my very ordinary semi in B29 a few years ago. The roof is plain clay tiles on timber batten on timber rafters. The rafters are supported on the top of the outer walls on a timber, the wall plate. The ends of the rafters can be seen from outside and this is because when built, air was intended to flow through the loft space. This circulating air dries the back of those tiles after heavy rain.
It was after I had moved in that I found that in the summer, visitors arrive. These visitors, birds, have travelled hundreds of miles. By chance, because my roof was as first built and not later stopped up with soffit boards, the visitors set up nest on my wall plate. The Swifts are rarely there as they are almost always on the wing; nests are for chicks.
You can see the Swifts, careering across the sky above a housing estate by Selly Oak Park, from May onwards. Perhaps you have Swifts in your area. They eat (only) insects, they stay airborne, and with their sometimes incredibly fast flight, are sometimes mistaken for swallows. Their acrobatic stunts are called ‘low-level screaming parties’.
Sadly what I have noticed is that the numbers are declining. This is also documented: Common Swifts (Apus apus) are declining in the UK and are an amber listed species of conservation concern. The RSPB asks the public each year to enter their sightings of Swifts into their survey form at http://www.rspb.org.uk/helpswifts. One aim is to protect existing nest sites when people are refurbishing their homes; another is to provide new nest sites in new developments in areas where Swifts are already present.
This issue, the new nest sites, is crucial. Housebuilding in the UK collapsed during the years 1990 to 2012. Very few new homes were built for people, let alone ones with places for Swifts to nest in. The situation is changing. The government estimates that 1.4-1.8 million more households will need accommodation by 2020. A building boom will be necessary to provide for them all. From the point of view of saving declining Swift populations, the problem is that new buildings are useless for Swifts. However, new housing projects can include Swift nest places if we ask for them. If the roof form of a new building does not suit, commercially-available Swift nest bricks can be incorporated. This can happen if more of us become Swift enthusiasts, and make it happen.
Birmingham and the Black Country, with its bodies of water, has plenty of insects for Swifts to eat. So too has Cambridge, the heartland of the Action for Swifts group, where more than fifty Swift projects have been carried out in commercial and private buildings, schools and church towers. In one case, a thriving colony of Swifts in old houses was saved as the old houses were demolished and new ones erected by phasing the project over three seasons and by building Swift nest accommodation into the new buildings. Over 200 nests were built into the new houses, and so far 44 breeding pairs have been recorded in them.
I want to see more Swifts in Selly Oak, and I am discussing with some neighbours (who have blocked up their eaves) the installation of Swift boxes. I ordered boxes from http://www.swift-conservation.org and I will then need access to a ladder to install them.
You too could host Swifts and play a part in stopping their decline. What we do want is a Rowley Hills Swift group!
It is a privilege and a joy to share a summers day with these amazing birds.