Swifts are amazing, beautiful birds. Supreme aerialists, they spend almost all their life in the air, a lot of that at low level, feeding on airborne insects, but we have personally seen them flying at about 9000 feet (about 2743 metres). If they need to they can fly twice that high; they have been observed migrating at 18,700 feet (5,700 metres) over Ladakh in the Himalayas. They feed, drink, mate and sleep on the wing, and only land to breed. So a young Swift will spend its first two or three years in constant flight before it nests. Because they never land on the ground, and are so fast and so totally aerial, Swifts are very hard to study. There's still an awful lot that we don't know about them, making them a real Mystery Bird. See this article for more information:
Swifts are in London for just three months each Summer, then they
migrate to Central and Southern Africa to spend our Winter there.
Since Roman times, Swifts have nested here in man-made buildings. Originally
cave, tree-hole and cliff nesters, they switched their nesting
Fully protected by UK and EC laws (it is illegal to kill or harm them, to damage their nests or take their eggs) Swifts do no harm, make little or no mess. They eat flying insects such as aphids, flying ants, mosquitoes, hoverflies and small beetles, catching huge numbers every day. The parent birds also eat most of the chicks' droppings (possibly to recycle the mineral content); there are no great piles of droppings beneath their nests.
Swifts nest almost only in pre-1944 buildings. While
10% of homes
built before 1919 can house Swifts, the figure for inter-war housing
is 7%, and for post-1944 housing only 1.4%. Post-2000 it is probably
nil. This is because the techniques and materials used in modern buildings
deny Swifts access to breed,
it's the same with refurbished or re-roofed older buildings.
We are losing our Swifts fast! Between 1995 and 2011 we lost about a third of all the Swifts breeding in the United Kingdom. Why? There are five obvious causes. Large sums of money have been given by the National Lottery to refurbish decaying historic buildings, quite often sites for nesting Swifts. More significant in terms of the numbers affected, since 1997 there has been a major refurbishment of social housing, a popular place for nesting Swifts. Demolition of old buildings is also a cause of nest site loss; the replacement buildings invariably exclude Swifts. On top of all that, it is now fashionable to convert old factories and warehouses into apartments and offices, and they too were often prime Swift nesting sites. These old buildings are always refubished or rebuilt to modern standards, with sealed roofs and walls, and no space left for harmless, beautiful and life-enhancing Swifts. Finally, insecticides. Most of the UK's arable land is sprayed with insecticides several times a year. Populations of some insects, such as moths, which Swifts do eat, are declining fast as a result. There appears to be no likely solution to that problem in even the long term future.
As well as Swifts, many other birds are affected. The Swallow, House Martin, Sparrow and Starling have all suffered population crashes. They all rely on buildings for many of their nest places, they all rely on insects and other invertebrates for their food.
Government identified the profusion and richness of wild bird life as one of its "Quality of Life Indicators". Local authorities are
maintain and if possible enhance the biodiversity of their areas. The London
Borough of Camden has identified the Swift as a "Flagship Species for the Built Environment", and is taking
action to arrest its decline. You can ask your local authority to do the same.
Making a place for Swifts costs little. Swifts will use DIY or commercially available nest boxes, built in nest bricks and trays which can be installed into old or new buildings. This doesn't imperil the structure, preserves the birds from extinction, and contributes much to our environment and quality of life.
Architects, Local Authorities, Developers and Builders have a special responsibility to protect the natural world, and Swifts come high on the list of vulnerable species their work may endanger. Minor low-cost coordinated initiatives in design and building will ensure that Swifts still fly in our skies and in our children's skies too.