Save our swifts

Don't let the sound of summer fade away

This swift has its throat full of insects to take back to its chick. (C) Nick Truby

Swift numbers are declining fast

Our Derbyshire Swift Conservation Project, run in partnership with Derbyshire Ornithological Society, aims to raise awareness of this amazing bird and help stop the decline in its numbers.

Swift numbers are declining fast - in the last 25 years they have dropped by up to a half. Help us stop this trend by telling us where you've seen swifts in the county and where they are breeding.

Lets us tell you more...

Learn all about swifts

Swifts live out their lives entirely on the wing, only landing when they nest. This means that as the young fly off to Southern Africa for the winter, they will stay airborne for the next two years at least. Only when they start nesting themselves will they land again, and then only high up on a building and never on the ground or in a tree. They feed on the wing (eating insects in their hundreds), drink on the wing and even sleep on the wing!

Swifts are all black and have long scimitar-shaped wings. By comparison, swallows and house martins are smaller and also white underneath so you shouldn’t mistake a swift for either of the other similar species.

While house martins build mud nests under our eaves and swallows nest on beams, usually inside stables or barns, swifts make no visible nest at all. Instead, they fly up under our eaves, using whatever tiny crack they can find to gain entry into the roof space.

Urban populations

Swifts are essentially urban birds, nesting only on our buildings, especially older ones where small openings are still available for them. This is partly why their numbers are falling - they are excluded from their nests when buildings are renovated, new soffits or barge boards are fitted or when a house is re-roofed or has a loft conversion.

As part of the project, we can supply advice to householders, builders, architects and developers to show them how easy it is to create small entrances for swifts.

Why swifts need your help

Swifts have shared our buildings for the last 2000 years.

They nest in both older and more recent buildings where they can gain access. However, new building techniques and materials have made it impossible for swifts to gain access to any new buildings unless special provision is made eg by getting internal nest boxes fitted during construction. As a result swift populations in Derbyshire and elsewhere are under real threat.

Swift advice leaflet

Your Questions Answered

Answers to Questions asked at the DWT Swift Webinar 10th March 2021.

Thanks for all your great questions following the webinar last week.
We (Edward Mayer and Nick Brown) have tried to answer them briefly below but you will also find answers to most of them by searching on either Edward’s website: www.swift-conservation.org or alternatively the Action for Swifts blog.

If you feel that your question has not been answered satisfactorily, or you have others, please email Nick Brown (DWT) who will reply to you direct or, if necessary, pass your question on to Edward Mayer.  nbrown@derbyshirewt.co.uk .

Your Qs & our A’s:

  1. The over-use of pesticides is the main issue in Swift declines, what can be done to put a stop to this? Loss of nest sites may be a much bigger problem – we just don’t know which is more significant! You can stop using any insecticides in your own garden and home, and encourage neighbours and friends to do likewise. You can also sign petitions, write to your MP, join campaigns etc. Best of all maybe, campaign locally to stop your Council from using any biocides at all. If Paris can ban biocides, so can we!

  2. I am aware that swift boxes can be bought… but for me they are too expensive. Is there somewhere I can obtain plans to make my own? or do I just loosen some tiles!!! Free plans can be downloaded from Edward’s website (www.swift-conservation.org )

  3. I feel so demoralised. I do so much to try to help swifts, yet it seems so little against the enormous threats they face. Edward, how do you stay so positive in the face of all this?
    Not to do anything is just a way to feel even worse about it all. Just keep trying to help in one way or another and encourage others to join you!
  4. How can those of us living in pre 20th century houses check if they are swift friendly (and also protect them if we need roof work doing)? See https://www.swift-conservation.org/
  5. Might it be possible to tempt swifts back to rural areas - maybe if I built a wooden wildlife tower in West Devon? We have a small nature reserve around the house and I see swifts feeding over it. But I have no idea where they're breeding. Swift towers are so far not very good at attracting swifts, certainly not in numbers. And they are very expensive. Better to install boxes on buildings nearby.
  6. Is there still time to get boxes up before the swift’s arrive and where is best to place them i.e. north facing, over a certain height. Swifts are not back until mid-May so you still have time, at or above 12 feet.
  7. I live on a hill overlooking Rivelin valley, swifts nest in the eaves of a house further up the road, but my neighbours further down have put up a swift box which has been empty for 5 years. Facing the wrong direction? How to get the direction aspect etc right? Where to get advice from? See Edward’s website/contact your local swift group/wildlife trust.
  8. Also, I’d love to start an initiative in my little town. We used to have so many swifts but last year was terrible for them. Have you got any advice about how to get a group started or who to speak to to get some boxes up in town? Maybe get together with a few friends or set up a group within your local RSPB group/Wildlife Trust or local Natural History Society. Advice on setting up small community groups is available on the internet but if you need more help contact Nick.
  9. Peter, Ballycastle (Northern Ireland). I need to replace 6 of my zeist plywood nest boxes before swifts return in May. How crucial is it for me to replace with the same style box or would it be ok to replace with the likes of a shoe box style bearing in mind the location of the entrance hole might be need to be changed? Try and get the entrance holes in the exact same place as Swifts hate change, otherwise as near as possible
  10. Do swift boxes need to be positioned above a certain height? At or above 12 feet, preferably as high as possible on a building.
  11. Are bungalows too low for swift boxes ? 12 foot minimum height is acceptable
  12. How can I discourage the sparrows from occupying my swift box? Put a bung in the entrance hole and only take it out in May. Of course sparrows are declining anyway..and there’s a theory that their chirping attracts swifts to new boxes.
  13. What about the droppings under nest boxes- is that a problem?  (Karen from WA state) No, as our Swifts eat their chicks’ droppings. It’s different with North American Swifts, but they nest in hollow trees and chimneys so there’s no real problem there either.
  14. Do swift boxes need to be on particular side of a building, as in shaded or sunny side? They need to be not too cold, not too hot and not wet so choose a suitably shaded location.
  15. Do swifts spend any time perching for example in trees, gardens, telephone wires etc? Or do they spend most of their time in the air? They cannot perch at all. They spend all their time in the air except when breeding or in great trouble, when they cling to the walls of buildings, usually when suffering from starvation and hypothermia
  16. I think swifts need supplementary feeding in towns. Is there a support network for them? No, they are fine in towns, they can fly 100kms plus just to collect a meal
  17. Great talk! Apart from not spraying (clearly essential), what else can farmers do on their land itself to encourage swifts? Grow flowering crops that encourage insects; farm livestock that produce dung that encourages insects are brilliant Swift and Insectivorous bird supporters too.
  18. Which compass direction is the best for swift boxes to face? They need to be not too cold, not too hot and not wet so choose a suitably shaded location
  19. I'm guessing swift box placement can be facing any direction? Correct.  Do they need good access, like bats, without obstruction? Yes since they come in and then swoop upwards to access their nest sites.
  20. Is there are preferred direction for swift nest boxes? No…see other answers about this.
  21. How long do swift boxes take to be colonised where none existed before? 1 to 10 years depending on whether there are Swifts nesting already nearby or whether you use Swift calls to attract them And does the use of swift call speakers make a significant difference? It can speed occupation up considerably.
  22. I’m getting a swift box and recording of calls. Friends have had trouble from neighbours complaining about the noise of the calls on the recording. How quiet could I play mine and still be effective? And what are the optimum times to play the recording? Play calls early morning and in the evenings but turn them off 9am - 6pm. Annoying neighbours is not good of course so play the calls quietly….though they won’t be so effective…..trial and error!
  23. Do you need to clean the swift box out each year or should you just leave it? Just leave it! They actually NEED the nest for the next year. No maintenance required!
  24. Does it matter if church bells are rung during nesting season for church tower boxes? No!
  25. Do the boxes have to face a certain way? We are in a bungalow & have East & West Apex. Side of house is too low at 7ft. Have house martins in apexes already. Could we put swift boxes under the house martin boxes, or under the soffit at the side. Yes, if they are a minimum of 12 feet up.
  26. Do you have a source of literature or info that could be used to lobby councils about stopping use of biocides in parks? Please contact BugLife!
  27. There is talk of swifts in the urban environment but what about in rural areas? Same issues/same solutions….swifts will nest in very rural situations….
  28. Will Swift boxes be incorporated in the renovation/repair of Notre Dame  in Paris? I don’t know but I will ask!
  29. Is there any side of the building that I should avoid placing my swift box – if on the South side either use a box with a white or upvc roof or shade it under wide eaves.
  30. are there restrictions on box locations- hot sun, trees, phone lines, proximity to adjacent buildings that will prohibit installation? See answers elsewhere…..swifts can access nests at an angle but prefer clear air space around them.
  31. will swifts use a nestbox on a bungalow? Or would it be too low down? 12 feet is the minimum height for a box
  32. Are you aware of examples where, historically, there have been no swift colonies, but they have been attracted in? We have swift boxes up, but no history in the village at all. Yes, Edward’s project at London Zoo.
  33. Are swift boxes successful if they are put on houses in areas where swifts haven’t been seen? Yes!
  34. Does each box need a ‘sound system’ or can there just be 1 or 2 within , say a village community? The latter is fine
  35. Hi Edward, We’ve chatted before by email, but great to put a face to a name! Anyway, as an ecologist we have been incorporating swift boxes into our clients’ projects for coming on 20 years now, with several thousand new boxes incorporated into new builds and renovation projects. Although clients are reluctant to sign up for long-term monitoring, we voluntarily monitor our local sites (with tape lures) but we can’t do everything! Therefore, is there the potential to create a database (via Swift Conservation) that ecologists enter where new provisions are, and then allow access to the database for local swift groups who may be able to monitor going forward?  Howard. RSPB has a database which is available to eg planners/ecological consultants.
  36. I have never seen swifts near my home. Would they come if I put in nest boxes? You can only try! Playing Swift Calls is a great incentive!
  37. What is the best position for a nest box on a building N S E W and what height up from the ground minimum please? See answers elsewhere….and Edward’s leaflets on his website!
  38. Can the slide with the websites ad contact info be shown again please? The information is provided above.
  39. What support is available if you find injured Swifts? See the Swift First Aid pages of Edward’s website www.swift-conservation.org for a list of carers
  40. How long do swifts live for? I have returning colony nesting the area where I live in the last 5 years. Thanks. 7 to 15 years would be about average.
  41. What do you think about the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and similar organizations really getting together to put forward a realistic plan that is acted on to actively support our wildlife in the country, towns and cities? This is something we do. See our latest blog here. We have joined forces with the Woodland Trust, RSPB and the National Trust to urge the government to help transform protected landscapes for the good of nature, climate and people.

 

  1. When does this new Environmental Act 2021 come into effect? Sometime after the autumn if it passes its current stages etc. Then it has to gain the Royal Assent.
  2. I put up swift boxes (5) over 4 years ago and played the calls but no swifts yet, although they are in the village. 3 are already occupied by sparrows today. What more can we do to entice them? Just keep going!
  3. In terms of playing Swift calls, Do you find where you play the calls from plays a big part? i.e is it better to play the calls direct from the box or do you know it works from further away? i play mine from an ipad through the window, which is 2 metres away from the box and currently haven’t had any luck. saying this it does seems to bring them close by to investigate but nothing up to a box yet. i have been trying this for at least the last 5 years. Best bet is to play from within a nest box or below it or else very close to it indeed.
  4. Hi Edward, such an amazing talk thank you. Is there help for Ecologists on the best bat boxes to advise developers depending on the building material, height of the building and use of the building? Thank you! Yes, please consult the Bat Conservation Trust
  5. Do you think if we have more nesting places the colony would grow? I think they arrive in larger groups then look around and some may opt to nest elsewhere. Just a theory. Well worth a try – the more boxes the better!
  6. I live in the house shown at Freshwater but unfortunately the swifts didn't return after the old school was demolished. Swift bricks now used mostly by house sparrows. Not sure if the residents would like to listen to swift calls. Is there a recommendation for the duration, timing and volume for playing swift calls? Thanks for a great talk. Thank you! Play then just for an hour or two after dawn and again before dusk.
  7. Did you recommend emailing the local council to ask about the current new build rules in the area? Yes! But a letter to the Chief Planner is better, and a face to face meeting better still!
  8. What is your opinion on Swift Towers / Poles?  Are they any good? Occupation rates are generally low/very low but experimentation continues…..may be more effective to spend your money on lots of boxes instead!
  9. In relation to my last question what would be the best times of the day to play the calls? After dawn and before dusk for an hour or two.
  10. If you wanted to give swift’s access to boxes in your loft by drilling through the brickwork what is the optimum hole size to prevent competition such as starlings and house sparrows gaining access? You might stop Starlings but you won’t stop Sparrows as they are the same size as Swifts.  I would drill a 100mm hole with a diamond hole saw for masonry, then fit a Schwegler entrance plate to the exterior.
  11. I have a fairly new swift box which i hope will get used for the first time this year. How many times will the birds leave the box each day - put another way, how long do i need to watch the box to see if it is in fact being used? Anything between 20 minutes and two hours is average.
  12. Thank you for the fascinating talk. Can you put Swift boxes on South-facing building elevations? Or would they be too hot? You can fit them to this elevation if they are substantially shaded by eaves, and/or paint them white.
  13. Also it seems once the group has departed the last ones to leave are the young ones with I guess a few adults to guide them. Is that true? Again this is what I think I had seen. Thank you. No, it isn’t correct. Radio studies show that the young ones just leave and head off into the unknown, with no parental help at all.
  14. Thanks for this fabulous talk Edward & Derbyshire WT. How high up does a swift box need to be & does direction matter? Thanks, Niki 💚 Thanks!  Above 12 feet is optimal but ideally as high as possible.
  15. Is it known why swifts return south earlier than swallows and martins?  It always seem so early. No. Presumably the food swifts eat declines very rapidly during August whereas swallows and martins can feed themselves and their young into early autumn.
  16. Thanks for the talk - really interesting. Thank you!
  17. Dan from Melbourne – Wow!
  18. Is there an optimum height above ground level for installing nest boxes/bricks? Above 12 feet is optimal.
  19. How high up on a house do swift nest boxes have to be? We live in a bungalow, so could we put one up? Above 12 feet is optimal.
  20. Has this talk been recorded? is it possible to listen to it later on? If yes through what channel?  Yes, it is on You Tube as per the earlier email.
  21. My Neighbour despises my swift attraction call. What is the minimum optimal time to play the call to attract swifts to my new box. Could I just play it in May and July when birds are looking for nest sites? I had "bangers" last year. Don't want to miss the opportunity. May and July are brilliant. For one hour after dawn and one hour before dusk if you can.
  22. will swifts nest in boxes I've placed16ft above a bird feeder? This year is 2nd year trying to attract them. Quite possibly but it can take several years to attract them.
  23. What is the latest rehabilitated swifts, adults and juveniles can safely be released after the return migration to fly back to Africa? It depends entirely on the weather and flying insect availability and the weather en route.
  24. Lack of swift accommodation more of a risk to their survival than lack of food? I ask because there are no swifts in our neighborhood which could be a sign there is not enough food. We don’t really know but loss of nest sites is certainly a very important factor.
  25. If putting up a multi nest box for example 3 entrance holes, is it critical to compartmentalize the box into 3 discrete boxes or can it be left open planned? Partitions are vital as they fight in open plan.
  26. Any particular time of day best for playing swift calls? A minimum of one hour after dawn and same before dusk
  27. How can climate change affect the migration of swifts? Thanks. By provoking violent storms, unduly cold weather and a dearth of flying insects.
  28. What effect is the changing weather systems having due to global warming By provoking violent storms, unduly cold weather and a dearth of flying insects it is causing we think mass deaths of Swifts on migration
  29. Has there been a study, town by town, on numbers in each? In Tamworth we have a number of Swift populations but declining numbers, sadly! No. Recording has been random. The main effort should be to get more boxes installed….
  30. How big is the problem with Africans and others hunting swifts for food? As far as we know it does not impact Swifts that much. There is evidence this hunting for food as far as we know has happened in the Congo in particular, but conducting meaningful research there is virtually impossible.
  31. What is your website ?   www.swift-conservation.org
  32. What about if the church tower is lit up. Does this disturb them? It depends entirely on the nature of the lighting. If it is subtle, then it’s OK, if it is powerful and shines in the Swifts eyes as they come in to land, or into their nests, it may be a disincentive.

How you can help

In order to keep a record of swift numbers, we need your help.

If you have seen swifts in Derbyshire please let us know by email or phone us on 01773 881188. We will need the location details and a postcode.

You can also support our important work by becoming a member, volunteering with us and writing to your MP about why Derbyshire's swifts mean so much to you and how they need more protection. 

Thank you 

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