Swifts take flight from vanishing eaves

A A A

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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss