The Swift is a truly remarkable little creature – one of the fastest birds on the planet, it can fly at speeds of up to 110kph in level flight and travel an average daily total of 800km. That’s about 2 million km in a lifetime!
For 10 months of the year, these voracious insect hunters won’t land at all. “They feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air,” says Susanne Åkesson from Lund University in Sweden. “They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can’t really land on the ground.” That’s because their wings are too long and their legs are too short to take off from a flat surface.
Image credits: jtwood
But Swifts are in trouble. Their breeding numbers are in freefall, with the loss of nesting sites playing a big part in the crisis. After spending time in Africa to escape from the harsh northern winters, these migratory birds come back to the same spot each year to breed.
However, they don’t like nesting in trees. They prefer barns or other old buildings, which have nice cozy gaps under roof tiles and eaves.
There are different species of Swift and they are often confused with Swallows. The two types of bird are very similar but are in fact unrelated. Luckily for us, our Swift expert Lynda was able to explain the difference to us. “Swifts can often be confused with Swallows or House Martins, but these birds make mud nests, whereas Common Swifts make nests inside the walls of buildings and not usually visible,” she told Rare Norm.
These particular nests, which are visible and not in a wall cavity, do not belong to the Common Swift then, but perhaps either to a family of Swallows or a different species of Swift.
Image credits: jerseygal2009 (not the actual photo)
Lynda, who runs the organization ‘Swift Conservation Ireland‘ is based in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland. She decided to take action in 2010 after she noticed that the local Swift population had declined rapidly.
“I realized that Swift numbers were declining in our towns and subsequently learned that you can provide nest boxes for them,” Lynda told us. “I wanted to do something to help them because they are truly amazing birds. They spend most of their life on the wing and only land to breed. They eat, drink, sleep and even mate in the air!”
“I love them for the excitement they bring to our lives with their aerial displays and ‘screaming parties’, they bring a smile to my face.”
Image credits: jtwood
In 2012 Lynda set up her first nest box project. She installed 12 nest boxes and had the first breeding pair in 2014. By 2018, 10 of the 12 boxes were occupied.
As well as this, she went around her county doing a survey of all the traditional nesting sites in buildings, so people knew where Swifts were living before doing any renovations. “The decline in Swift numbers throughout Ireland has mostly been due to loss of nest sites when old buildings in towns have been renovated or demolished without anyone realizing that Swifts were nesting in the buildings,” she explained.
“The reason I decided to survey the county towns was to record nest sites and try to protect them.”
Image credits: jtwood
So what can you do to help? The very best thing you can do is to leave their nests well alone, as this sign written by the employee of an unknown company suggests. Don’t try to move their nests, because they are very sensitive to that.
“Swifts nest in the same place for life so it is not possible to move their nest site,” Lynda continued. “They come to Ireland to breed so we are vital to their long-term survival. They are here from May to September each year.”
Image credits: jo_garbutt (not the actual photo)
“If they return in May and find their nest site has been blocked off then they are homeless and will stubbornly try to get into the nest site for one, maybe two breeding seasons. During that time they will not breed. It could take them three or more years to find a replacement home.”
“So, if you have a Swift nest site in your premises then my advice is to treasure it and allow them to continue nesting there. They don’t leave any mess or droppings at the nest site and they provide wonderful aerial displays.”
Image credits: hedera_baltica (not the actual photo)
Swift Conservation Ireland has a comprehensive website with all kinds of interesting information about Swifts. You can even watch them nesting on a Livestream! “You can them socializing, lay and incubate eggs and you can watch the chicks grow and do their amazing exercises before they leave the nest,” Lynda says.
“One amazing fact is that when a Swift chick leaves the nest site it will not land again for three years – until it has reached maturity and wants to start breeding.”
Do you have Swifts in your area? Did you know about these amazing little birds? Let us know what you think in the comments, and keep an eye out for our speedy little friends this summer!
Image credits: birdbrian (not the actual photo)
Here’s what people had to say about the sign, and their own experiences with birds nesting around their houses