Image by lamcopphis, CC BY-ND 2.0

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.

“From the churchyard I can hear the calls and sounds of both turtle dove and spotted flycatcher, whilst the swifts, newly arrived from Africa, circle excitedly round the church tower.  They will nest here and also under the thatch on the nearby cottage.  The loud screaming reflects the old country name – the devil bird.”

I wrote this entry in my notebook some 50 years ago.  Regretfully, the swift no longer breeds at either of these village locations – in fact it is, in my view, a rather scarce local breeding species, and declining.

This is certainly the most aptly named of all British birds.  But, you may ask, is it really a British bird at all, spending only about 10 to 12 weeks here in northern Europe?  So maybe it is a true African species just visiting us to breed…

The lifestyle of the swift is unusual to say the least, feeding, sleeping and mating on the wing – how amazing is that?  When the young finally leave the nest, they will not touch land of any kind for at least 3 years, except if storm blown.  If they end up on the ground, they may not be able to take off again.  All of a swift’s four toes point forward, so it can cling to walls and rocks, but not to tree branches.  From its natural home on cliffs, rocky canyons and high mountain slopes, with the coming of man it seemingly quickly adapted to make use of manmade structures, especially churches and castles.

Having spent just a few weeks with us, usually from mid-May to mid-August, swifts will set off again on the long 6000-mile journey from Europe to South Africa.  This is a journey full of dangers, from trapping in southern Europe to natural predation by birds of prey.  I have never seen a hobby hunting swifts and swallows at home, but remember watching this happening in the Netherlands off the coast of the island of Texel.

Whilst on a cruise in the eastern Mediterranean, the local Eleonora’s falcons were hunting swifts during the early autumn migration.  Here, amongst the Greek islands, the local falcons time their young to coincide with the rich food supply provided by the autumn bird migration – how clever is that?

Back in South Africa, the swift is still not safe and here the top predator is the bat hawk, which comes out to feed at dusk, when the swifts are at their most vulnerable.

Swifts will make this trip maybe 3 times in their lifetime, flying over 36,000 miles to nest with us in Britain.

This is a much-loved bird in serious trouble, mainly due to a lack of places to nest.  Building styles have changed, leaving little room for swifts, but locally members of the Cambridge Bird Club have been doing a great job putting up nest-boxes for them and talking to builders about leaving potential nesting places in new buildings.  All great news – and thank you! For more information about swift boxes, please contact the BTO or the RSPB.

Chris Mead of the BTO wrote in 2000 “Help swifts now or they could be lost”.  How very true.

European Swift Fact File

  • Latin name: Apus apus
  • Size: 7 – 7.5 inches
  • Single brooded – lays 2-3 white eggs
  • Life span:  Averages around 5.5 years
  • UK population 1976: c100,000 pairs (BTO) which was unchanged up to 2000.  Today, the latest estimate I could find was 59,000 pairs (BTO)
  • Only one species breeds in the UK, but worldwide there are over 60 species, not including a related family of swiftlets (birds nest soup!)
  • Over 80 local or traditional names

To read: “Swifts in a Tower” by David Lack published by Methuen & Co Ltd (1956).  An outstanding book, maybe one of the greatest single species studies ever published.                 

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