Mid Ulster Swifts

Swifts are those dark coloured streamlined birds which speed and scream over the rooftops of our buildings in the summer.  They have a fascinating way of life and a number of curious habits.

Their Latin name, Apus apus, literally means ‘without feet’, and although their short legs and minute, slightly curved feet are ideal for clinging to walls and rock faces, they are useless for holding on to a perch or walking on the ground.  Unlike swallows and martins, a swift never intentionally lands on the ground, nor do they perch on wires.  Indeed, a swift spends almost all of its life on the wing.  They drink, bathe, preen, collect food and nesting material, all in flight.  They even fly while sleeping!

Swifts are with us for just 3-4 months of the year.  The first birds arrive in early May and settle down to breed.  In mid June, non breeding birds arrive.  By the first week of August the birds start to migrate south, back to Africa, and by mid August they have all gone.  This short stay coincides with high insect populations and the long hours of daylight.

Recent reports estimated that swift numbers in the UK have plummeted with over a third of breeding swifts lost between1995 and 2011.  Research is still being undertaken as to what is causing this decline.  Swifts have similar feeding habits, migration etc to swallows and house martins, and although their numbers have also declined in the past, this has levelled off in recent years.  However, swift numbers continue to fall. Research into this decline is still being undertaken. However, the loss of nesting sites is believed to be playing a vital role in the swifts decline.

Swifts nest in the eaves and cavities of buildings. Holes around pipe-work, behind worn masonry, and missing bricks and tiles provide good nest places. These sites are generally associated with older buildings, which when refurbished/renovated result in the site being lost. Swifts are very nest site specific, with the same cavity used throughout the life of the bird. If they are excluded, it can take years before they find another suitable site.

However, on the face of it, it looks as if this is one of those rare environmental problems which may have a relatively easy solution – Swift bricks.  These are basically blocks that have hollow interiors and a small hole for swift access.  They effectively replace a standard block during the construction of a building. If this is not possible, erecting an external swift nest box can be of benefit. These can be bolted under the eaves, or in the apex of a gable, in the shade. It should be high enough, with clear adjacent airspace and no obstructions to enable the swifts to ‘drop’ out of the nest.

As swifts breed in colonies, the best chances of success are close to where swifts are already breeding. However, the use of a ‘swift call’ CD has proven to increase the uptake of new nest sites. If possible, try putting up a number of boxes. Not only will this give the birds more choice, but may be the foundation of a new colony.

Through the Mid Ulster Biodiversity Action Plan, a number of swift nest boxes have been purchased. In partnership with River Blackwater Catchment Trust these will be available to be erected on suitable buildings in Moy village. There are also a few boxes that may be available for the wider Dungannon area. If you think your building would be suitable, please contact Mark Edgar, Biodiversity Officer, Mid Ulster District Council for further information.

E-mail: mark.edgar@midulstercouncil.org