Posted: Friday 20 July 2012
by Kate Bradbury

I’ve fallen in love with swifts this year. I don’t know what’s taken me so long, but now, every time I hear a screeching in the sky, my heart does a little dance.

Swift in the sky, photo courtesy of the RSPB

I’ve fallen in love with swifts this year. I don’t know what’s taken me so long, but now, every time I hear a screeching in the sky, my heart does a little dance.

I’ve only really noticed swifts since I’ve been living in this area. They seem to like the Victorian houses in neighbouring roads, in which there should be plenty of wall and roof cavities suitable for nesting. There’s one road in particular, where several pairs wheel about above the rooftops, racing like spitfires before disappearing into the sky. One morning last week, while I was cycling along this road, one swift swooped down low and flew alongside me for a second or two, screeching in my ear. It was a special moment.

Swifts are amazing birds. Arriving from Africa in late April to May, they mate, raise young and fly back again. The young, just a few days out of the nest, fly with them. Swifts used to nest in caves, cliffs and hollow trees, but now they’re happier in buildings (as long as they have access).

These birds spend pretty much their entire lives in the sky. They eat and sleep on the wing, only coming to earth to breed (although they even gather nesting materials on the wing). It can take four years for them to become sexually active – so from the moment they leave their nest to the time they build one of their own, their feet might never touch the ground.

Their diet consists of flying insects and airborne spiders, which are collected and bound into a sort of ball (called a bolus) at the back of their throats. They’re not garden birds but they are friends of gardeners – high up in the sky they eat large clouds of aphids. They can drink by catching raindrops in the air.

And they mate for life, each pair returning to the same nest each year, raising up to three young.

But swifts are declining. Numbers have dropped by a third in recent years, possibly due to a loss of nest sites and fewer insects. You can help them by putting swift nest boxes under the eaves of your house, and encouraging insects by digging a pond, letting patches of grass grow long, and leaving your borders untouched over winter (this helps insects to survive to breed in spring). 

This cold, wet summer has been particularly hard on insects, and therefore hard on swifts. According to the RSPB, premature fledging – where a baby bird leaves the nest before it’s ready – is more likely during wet summers. These young birds will have no chance of survival unless they’re rescued and cared for (see the RSPB factsheet on how to care for a grounded swift).

You can also take part in the RSPB swift survey, like I do, which helps the charity monitor where swifts are nesting, in order to help them. All you need to do is listen out for screeching in the sky, and then fill in an online form.

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Talkback: Swifts
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donutsmrs 23/07/2012 at 18:45

I love the swifts as well Kate. I look for them every year in May and I so look forward to hearing first one screeching high in the sky, they always seem to arrive here in Bournemouth in the beginning of May and I always make a note in my diary and when they leave in August.

Kate Bradbury 25/07/2012 at 14:03

They've had such a bad year, donutmrs. I really hope next year is better for them.


donutsmrs 25/07/2012 at 20:46

I have done the swift count Kate, counted 40 swooping across the sky. They are just beautiful.

hollie hock 26/07/2012 at 12:53

Kate I know exactly what you mean about swifts, I love hearing them have a good old screech.

I hear them a lot so will do a count

Welshonion 26/07/2012 at 16:50

Today they have been very active and noisy around our house where we have some nesting.

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