Of all our summer migrants the swift is surely the most incredible. That is not to belittle the extraordinarily hazardous journeys undertaken by tiny warblers, flycatchers, swallows, martins, and a host of other summer visitors, to reach the relative safety of our shores to breed and raise their young. The flight of the swift, however, is simply breath-taking and it is impossible to tire of watching them ‘riding the sky’ during their brief visit. Already, by early August they will be heading for equatorial Africa where they will feed, swoop, glide, and sleep on the wing until they return once again to grace our skies with their presence from early May and to breed, sadly, in fewer numbers each year.
What has gone wrong in England’s green and pleasant land that has led to a fifty per cent loss of swifts over the past twenty-five years? Farming methods have certainly contributed to a huge loss in insect biomass, and it is insects that these birds rely on. However, equally serious, is the loss of breeding sites. One hesitates to call them nest sites because the swift does not make much of a nest and lines its preferred place with just a few feathers caught on the wing.
Swift by name and swift by nature, the bird was at one time known as the martlet, upon which the mythical heraldic bird with no feet and continuously on the wing, was based. They have had a long association with us taking up nesting opportunities in any nooks and crannies under house eaves and spaces in taller buildings. However, in our barn-conversion and house-improvement affluent society we are sealing out our swifts who return year after year to their natal territories to find fewer and fewer nest sites. As one leading naturalist put it in reference to our declining birds, ‘they could return if we cared enough, but they won’t, because we don’t’ – a somewhat damning indictment of our casual neglect of the natural world upon which we all depend.
Whilst the gravity of the situation is crystal clear, not quite all is lost, but whether the actions of a few can stem the tide remains to be seen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that the solutions are very simple but as is pointed out above the will has to be there and at present, we continue to focus on ourselves.
Swifts can be provided with artificial nest boxes which they will take to readily and once these sites have been found they will use them year after year. Initially a swift caller is required to attract their attention to the potential new nesting places. At St Peter’s Church in Sudbury, where seven boxes were installed in the tower, flights of screaming swifts started checking out the new nesting sites eight minutes after the caller was switched on. Four boxes were taken up in the first season so possibly as many as ten youngsters were raised in 2019. In this way the rapid decline can be reduced but many more nesting boxes are required.
The swift has evolved more than any other bird for high speed. Long, narrow recurved wings driven by immensely powerful muscles keep this bird in the air for months at a time. They eat, sleep and even mate on the wing. There is simply nothing quite like watching swifts high over Sudbury’s riverside meadows or skimming low over the ponds as they scoop up a beak-full of water. Apart from their brief breeding season they generally stay aloft for theirs is an aerial life. With these iconic birds soon leaving for Africa, let us see if we can do better for them next year and as Samuel Drayton versed in 1612, that we will continue to enjoy ‘the fleet martlet thrilling through the skies.’