Swifts take flight from vanishing eaves


Swifts, the fast-flying summer visitors which are among Britain's most extraordinary birds, are being renovated out of existence.

Their traditional nesting places in roofs and eaves are rapidly vanishing as older houses and other structures are upgraded – while newer buildings, especially those in steel and glass, provide no space whatsoever.

Edward Mayer, who is campaigning to have nest boxes installed on buildings and to have the species' plight recognised, warns that eventually there will be no nesting places left.

Surveys by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have shown a dramatic fall in swift numbers between 1995 and 2005, with a decline of 22 per cent in England and Wales and a 38 per cent fall in Scotland.

Swifts come from Africa to breed in Britain every year and stay for the shortest period of any migrant – arriving in May and leaving as early as mid-July. Their distinctive arrowhead silhouette in the sky is seen by many people as a symbol of summer.

Like the swallow family – which they superficially resemble, but to which they are unrelated – they have adapted to human habitation, squeezing through the gap under the eaves of houses, churches, hospitals and town halls to nest typically on the beam on which the roof rafters rest, where they are safe from predators. But the way is being barred. Many buildings erected after the Second World War do not have such gaps and, as the older housing and building stock is renovated, nesting opportunities are disappearing all over Britain. Recent buildings, especially in modern materials such as steel and glass, are a swift no-go area. This has resulted in the tumbling numbers, says Mr Mayer.

The retired senior civil servant is mounting a vigorous campaign to draw attention to the swifts' plight and to popularise the introduction of nest boxes, which can be mounted outside buildings and which the birds will use once they realise they are there.

He would like swift nesting places to receive official protection locally and nationally in the same way in which legal protection is given to bat roosting sites, which cannot be disturbed and must be replaced with similar spaces elsewhere if they are.

"Loss of nest sites is causing a catastrophic loss of this species, a species that moved from a wild to a human habitat – and now humans are destroying the human-created habitat," said Mr Mayer, 60.

He gives a prime example of how the birds can be induced to nest in artificial colonies – the tower of Oxford University's Museum of Natural History, where since 1948 swifts have used nest boxes. This year about 70 pairs are breeding in the tower, watched over by amateur ornithologist Roy Overall, as they have been for the past 46 years.

Despite having had a hip replacement, Mr Overall, 76, regularly scales the ladders which lead to the top of the tower, where the birds nest in boxes behind the ventilation openings.

His knowledge of swifts' lives is encyclopaedic – from their ability to sleep, and even mate, on the wing, to the chicks' ability to endure hunger and cold for far longer than other birds.

*Details of Edward Mayer's campaign can be found at www.londons-swifts.org.uk

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine