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.
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 email@example.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.