North Northumberland Bird Club, October meeting

A swift
A swift

Edward Mayer, founder and director of Swift Conservation, gave the October talk titled Swifts – Keeping The Skies Alive to a large North Northumberland Bird Club audience in Bamburgh Pavilion.

He started his talk by reminding the audience of the differences between sand and house martins, swallows and swifts.

Swifts are not related to the other three birds but are part of the hummingbird and nightjar family. Fossil records from the Rhineland show that birds similar to swifts date back at least 49million years.

The swift cannot perch and it feeds, drinks, sleeps and mates on the wing only coming to terra firma to build a nest and breed. However, they are facing many challenges to survive and flourish and the UK, for example, has seen a decline of a third in their number since 1995.

The main reason for the decline is the loss of nesting sites through the changes to our buildings.

Since the mid-20th century, construction work has deprived swifts of places where they can nest. Regulations stipulating the protection of apertures in buildings by grilles, and the development of sealed structures have unfortunately lead to declines in swift populations.

Insulation in cavity walls and roof spaces, concrete, cladding and the move from open eave ventilation have all prevented access to potential nesting sites.

Increasingly confined to historic structures, swifts are vulnerable if the building requires renovation. This can destroy nests and chicks during the summer breeding season. It is illegal to disturb nests in the breeding season, but unfortunately any legal action taken is invariably too late to help the swifts.

Edward showed how this decline in nest sites can be halted by the use of specially-designed bricks and nest boxes which can be incorporated into existing buildings or included in new schemes.

By playing swift call CDs birds are attracted to new sites. He showed examples of successful developments ranging from swift towers in a Tesco car park to nest boxes on Network Rail buildings.

He detailed the yearly cycle of a swift. Finally, Edward encouraged us to find our swift colonies, count the birds, report their presence to organisations such as the RSPB, put up nest boxes and badger the local authority when development would threaten nest sites. Action is needed to keep our skies ‘screaming’ in summer.