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Common swift (Apus apus) flying overhead © Nick Upton

Stay Alert, Look Up and Help Save Swifts!

Tuesday 26 May, 2020, by Ian Court

Swifts are amazing birds. They are a migratory species that winter in Africa before returning to the UK to spend a few short months in the summer to breed.  It is a species perfectly adapted for life ‘on the wing’, with a torpedo-shaped body and long narrow wings. Other than when nesting, they rarely ever land. It is estimated that swifts can fly up to 500 miles a day. This is a species that eats and even sleeps in the air!  

Swifts are very similar to house martins and swallows, two species that can also be seen around Dales villages and towns in the summer months. For more information on how to separate swifts from hirundines (the collective name for swallow, house martin and sand martin), there is a useful video to help identification here   

It used to be thought that many migrant birds such as swifts used to hibernate, spending the autumn and winter in the mud at the bottom of ponds.  We now understand a lot more about this species and know that as soon as swifts have finished nesting in the UK both the adult and young birds will often leave the breeding area and head south to winter in central or southern Africa. These amazing journeys may involve travelling distances of up to 14,000 miles, with many birds crossing over the Sahara desert. 

Because swifts eat  a wide range of flying insects including midges, mosquitoes and flying spiders they need good weather conditions in order to feed, and so are one of the latest of our summer migrants to return to this country. Their natural nest sites are in cracks or crevices in rock faces or caves, with sites like Malham Cove offering perfect nesting sites for them.  They have, however, readily taken to nesting under eaves, roof tiles or other similar gaps in buildings.  It is remarkable to watch these birds fly at high speed right up the rock face or a building and then, at the very last moment, fold their wings and disappear into a barely visible gap or crack.

Swifts will often pair for life and so will settle down to nest quite quickly.  They don’t make a nest as such and will lay two or three eggs in a scrape and these will take between 19 and 25 days to hatch.  Adult swifts struggle to find food in poor weather and so will fly huge distances to avoid rain. This could prove to be disastrous when they are feeding young and so unlike most bird species, swift chicks can go torpid in the nest, allowing them to survive for several days without food. This means that swifts can have a drawn out breeding period, with young taking between 37 and 56 days to fledge.  As soon as the young leave the nest they are able to fend for themselves, and may soon leave the nesting area.  It is remarkable to think that it may be three years before they land again, when they return to nest for the first time.

These birds are very relatively long-lived usually living for around nine years but, a they have been known to survive for up to 21 years.  They are very faithful to their nest sites and will return year after year to exactly the same place to breed.  This makes them very susceptible to any building renovation works or repairs that block up their nest sites.     

This is one of the reasons why swifts are in trouble, as surveys have shown that the breeding population has declined in the UK by over 50% since 1995 .  We are still fortunate that swifts are present in many of the villages and towns within the Yorkshire Dales National Park which is why we are asking for your help in trying to protect this remarkable species. 

If swifts are nesting in your house, village or town then they can be relatively easy to locate.  If any renovation works or repairs to a building where they are nesting are planned, they can easily be timed to avoid any disturbance to nesting birds.  If the building work is likely to damage or destroy existing nest nests and they cannot be left intact once the breeding season is over, there are external and internal nest boxes that can be put up to provide suitable alternatives.  This means that when works are complete, the swifts still have somewhere to nest when they return in the following spring.  These boxes can also be put up if you want to try and encourage swifts to nest on your property.    

How You Can Help

With COVID-19 restrictions in place it is the ideal time to stay local and look out for some of the amazing wildlife that can be found in the Yorkshire Dales National Park on your own doorstep – or perhaps that should be ‘stood on your own doorstep looking up?’  

If we can find out where swifts are nesting then this information can be stored and checked by the Wildlife Conservation Team when any planning applications are received by the National Park Authority. If nesting swifts are found to be present in a building, then recommendations can be made so that by following a few basic guidelines nest sites will not be lost and alternatives can be provided.    

We are looking for your help to record swifts in two different ways.

Territorial Swifts Survey Method

Flocks of feeding swifts can often be seen feeding high over the towns and villages across the Dales but this does not necessarily mean that they are nesting nearby, as they will fly large distances during the day avoid poor weather or find good areas to feed.

We would like you to look out for groups of ‘screaming birds’ as they fly fast, low and noisily over your street, village or town, as this is their territorial display, meaning that they are likely to be nesting nearby.   

Look out for them any time from now until late July, on any warm, dry day.  The ideal time to look for swifts is before or up to two hours after dawn, and two hours before sunset.  

Determining the exact number of birds can be difficult so try to count each groups a number of times to get the best estimate of numbers.

If you see a group of ‘screaming swifts’ low over your street or village then please let us know the number of birds that you have seen using the survey form that can be found here.

Nesting Swifts Survey Method

If you know where swifts are breeding then please record the details of the nest locations during the breeding season using the survey form that can be found here.

The YDNPA are working closely with the Sedbergh Swift Community Group to help conserve swifts in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.  The group have been working for many years to raise awareness of swifts, and survey the areas around Sedbergh, Dent and Lune Valley for swift nesting sites. 

If you would like any advice on any swift conservation measures including the provision of nest boxes and/or swift bricks in the Sedbergh, Dent and Lune Valley areas please contact the Sedbergh Swift Community Group at  ta.hoare@btinternet.com or telephone:  01539 824043.

If you live in any other areas of the National Park and would like any advice on any swift conservation measures including the provision of nest boxes and/or swift bricks please e-mail the Wildlife Conservation Team or telephone reception on 0300 456 0030. 

With your help we can make sure that there are plenty of available nest sites for swifts to return to each year to breed, and that the spectacular sight and sound of these remarkable birds that are such an integral part of our summertime can still be seen and heard above the towns and villages of the Dales.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Picture of Ian Court

Ian Court

Ian is the Authority's Wildlife Conservation Officer

21 Replies to “Stay Alert, Look Up and Help Save Swifts!”

  1. Laura Parker says:

    We have large groups of screaming swifts flying over our garden in the middle of Malham.

  2. Nic Foxton says:

    I’ve seen some feeding over the Leeds Liverpool canal between Skipton and Gargrave. They seem to be concentrated just towards Skipton from the Sour Lane bridge. At least I think they’re Swifts, they definitely aren’t swallows.

  3. Mrs H McDougall says:

    We see lots of swifts regularly at Bowland Fell Park . Tosside.

  4. Malcolm Neesam says:

    Used to see swifts in great numbers around Thirsk but have not seen them for years until Sunday evening (24th May). Saw a pair in flight presumably feeding on insects

  5. John and Brenda Dewhurst says:

    We have been seeing swifts around the field behind our property in Giggleswick, and also in near by Settle for a week now. They are fewer in number the last year or two but it is good to hear their characteristic screaming
    as they fly around the river Ribble, and surrounding fields and village especially at dawn and dusk as they search insects.

  6. john and sue elliott says:

    john and sue elliott says
    we have 3 pairs of swifts preparing to nest in thegable end of a barn near our house in west marton skipton. We have 3 swift nest boxes nearby but as yet not in use . we see plenty of flying activity every evening

  7. J. P. Darwin says:

    Lots of swifts feeding in Aireville park, Skipton the other morning. They were down near the canal at bottom end of pitch & putt course.
    (I know this isn’t national park, but not far off).

  8. Kim Mason says:

    I have lived here at King Street Skipton for about 8 years and every year the swifts come and nest in the old nest of starlings they have a nest at the front of the house too i saw the write up in the craven and herald this week so I thought I would let you know

  9. Edwina Clements says:

    The Swifts are screaming regularly over Kilnsey.

    We have one pair using their regular nesting site under a slate in our roof and there may be 2 more sites nearby which I’ll keep an eye on

  10. David Watts says:

    We are looking to set up a Boston Spa Swift watch, following the principles set out by Richard March in his article in the Yorkshire Post and would appreciate any advise / assistance.

    Thank you

    David

  11. Jan says:

    We have screaming swifts circling in our village of Redmire and know that they are nesting in some boxes in the centre.

  12. Liz says:

    Lots around the centre of Horton in Ribblesdale

  13. Jonty Willis says:

    We have several swift nests on and around our house just outside the National Park at Redmire. Some in boxes, others in the walls.
    Does your survey stretch over the border?

  14. Richard Spensley says:

    There are swifts in our village of castle Bolton, at least 8 split in 2 groups. They have nested in Mr & Mrs C. Peacocks house, Windy Ridge

  15. Fred Payne says:

    Location: Sleights/Eskdaleside near Whitby

    Some 12 to 15 swifts swooping and screaming around when conditions are right, great.

  16. Hedley Patrick, The Old Barn , Hetton. says:

    On hearing that The Angel Inn at Hetton was to be altered I put up 4 swift boxes as they nested over their front door last year. I played a swift call tape adjacent to them at what I hoped was the correct time.
    During the last warm spell the swifts screamed around our house many times. I watched the boxes and am sure that despite the sparrows at least one is occupied as is an old swift site under the eaves.
    Unfortunately much to my concern since the current bad weather has arrived I have not noticed any activity

    • Wendy McDonnell says:

      Bad weather can have a significant impact on the breeding success of many species, particularly swifts. Swifts will travel huge distances to avoid bad weather so may not always be present in the area around a nest however; the poor weather could have caused them to fail. It would certainly be worth keeping a watch to determine any breeding any breeding outcome. The good news is that swifts are relatively long lived birds and are very faithful to nest sites and so it is likely that they will be back again next year.

      • Jim Flood says:

        Saltaire is not in the National Park (sadly) but we have quite a large flock? party? that provides a spectacular display from May to early August in front of our house. They nest in the eaves of our neighbours’ houses.

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