Posted: Friday 18 April 2014
by Kate Bradbury

I spent most of the last week in Venice... What struck me the most was that the whole place was teeming with screaming swifts.

Swift in flight

I spent most of the last week in Venice, where its southerly location ensured everything was at least three weeks ahead of anything back home. The elder blossom was out and the viper’s bugloss was just about to flower, but what struck me the most was that the whole place was teeming with screaming swifts. It will be another couple of weeks before this sound of summer returns to Hackney.

The beautiful old buildings in Venice make perfect swift habitats. Swifts tend to nest in holes and roof cavities high up in houses, and one of the reasons for their recent decline in Britain (thought to be by a third, according to the RSPB) is thought to be the lack of such spaces in new buildings. In our drive to be more energy efficient and live in secure, robust houses, we have denied swifts a place to raise their young. Not so in Venice.

Each morning I was woken by the screaming I had longed to hear since the birds disappeared from Hackney last July. They would race around the sky for a while before all but disappearing, not returning until the evening. Apparently swifts ascend high into the sky to collect insects such as aphids, hoverflies and midges for their young during the day, which is why we only see them in the morning and again at dusk.

They collect this food in a ball, called a bolus, in the back of their throats, and return to their nests to feed their chicks. Unlike the young of many birds the chicks can survive long periods of time without food, allowing their parents to fly long distances to gather insects.

Back home, we swift fanatics are counting the days until the screaming returns. I’m keeping an eye on the @SaveourSwifts Twitter account to see when they arrive, and I’ll also be logging my sightings with the RSPB Swift Survey.

In the meantime, if you have swifts in your area why not encourage them to breed? You don’t need to make holes in your house – simply erect a swift nest box or two under the eaves. You can also increase the number of insects in your garden by digging a pond and letting patches of grass grow long.  And praying for a bit of Venice sunshine would be good, too. 

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Swifts
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steve black 19/04/2014 at 11:12

a sound of summer without a doubt sadly most modern houses are not catered for them and house martins plus as you say less insects about too lets hope we can reverse this trend as wespeak they are winging their way back here some noted on south coast already m led to believe

Dovefromabove 19/04/2014 at 11:15

I heard swifts screaming overhead earlier in the week 

Forester2 19/04/2014 at 14:32

I thought I heard swallows twittering away above me over the last couple of days but could not see them.  Maybe they were flying really high and on their way somewhere.  It seems rather early..........but maybe. 

oldchippy 19/04/2014 at 14:43

I saw a swallow fly over my garden last Saturday we don't get many swallows in Ewell but swifts are often seen.

hypercharleyfarley 19/04/2014 at 15:01

I think the problem is that there are now fewer nesting sites for swifts in that we have relatively few old and crumbling/badly maintained properties here in the UK than in other parts of Europe.  Swifts and housemartins don't have the same type of nests - in that the latter make nests in much the same way as swallows do, whereas swifts nest in nooks & crannies in roof spaces rather than making a nest of their own with mud etc. on the outside of a wall.  In warmer countries, such as those round the Mediterranean, not only are there proportionately more older properties than we have in the UK,  but it seems to me that people there don't have the same need to make sure their homes are well-insulated & maintained in order to reduce fuel bills.

Saw swallows round here this past week - one pair has "returned home" to one property locally, whereas the others must have been in transit to somewhere further North.  I usually make a note of the first time/place I see them each year - last year the first sighting (by me) was 21st. April.


One thing that's always puzzled me  - ref swallows etc - is where did they nest before we built houses etc?  I see sand martins' nest-holes in sandy/pebbly riverbanks and assume that rocky outcrops would have been suitable for swallows - but did swallows etc begin to flourish when they had more available nest sites with the advent of mankind's creation of permanent settlements?    Where did they perch before there were telephone lines & roofs?  I've never seen one fly out of a tree!  Anybody know the answer?

p.s. just been out in the garden for a bit - saw two swallows on the telephone wire - definitely a pair 'cos they were "at it" (!) already.  Also disturbed a sitting wren - which I didn't know had its nest in the ivy on the wall near the back door.  I was trimming away some of the new growth on the wall and she almost flew in my face - her wings brushed my forehead!  I didn't look too closely to count just how many eggs, but  hope she goes back soon.   The nest is only about 5ft from the ground.

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