I love watching Swifts in summer – they bring life to our urban skies. They are birds with sickle shaped wings that seem perfectly designed for life in the air. Feeding, sleeping and mating are all performed on the wing. In fact, they only land to breed when they are four years old. They migrate 5,000 miles every year from southern Africa to their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia; only spending three months in the UK from early May. For me they bring a sense of the “wild” to long summer days in London, especially when they zip over rooftops in “screaming sorties”.
But Swifts, like many migrant birds from sub-Saharan Africa are in trouble. According to the British Trust for Ornithology they declined by nearly a third in the UK from 1995-2008. It is unclear what has caused this, but one of the main reasons is probably the loss of nest sites. Swifts nest mainly in pre-1944 buildings and as these get refurbished and re-roofed they can no longer access them. Modern buildings are also too well insulated to let Swifts in. Fortunately, Dulwich and particularly East Dulwich still has good numbers of Swifts and I regularly count 59 birds over my garden at the end of July once juvenile birds join the adults in the air. If you are lucky enough to have nesting Swifts and are planning building work then please follow the advice of the organisation, Swift Conservation (www.swift-conservation.org). They recommend doing the work when Swifts aren’t there (from September to April, as it is an offence to disturb nesting birds) and to:
- Leave existing nest places undisturbed
- If re-roofing or replacing soffit and bargeboards, make new access holes to match the old ones exactly
- Install internal nest sites instead of external ones, as the former have more longevity
- If you can’t do the first three. Then fit external nest boxes.
Steps have been taken to help Dulwich’s birds as nest boxes, funded by Dulwich Park Friends are due to go up on College Lodge once the refurbishment work is finished. The Dulwich Society has also applied for a Big Lottery Grant to put boxes on Dulwich Library and a local primary school. If you would like advice on putting Swift boxes on your own home then please contact me via the Local Help and Assistance page on the Swift Conservation website.
Edward Mayer from Swift Conservation will be giving a talk about helping to protect Swifts on 27th April at The Francis Peek Centre, Dulwich Park following the Dulwich Park Friends AGM at 7pm