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The Big Picture
Action to halt a swift decline

Abstract

Efforts to boost the numbers of swifts in the UK are increasingly needed as the birds face growing challenges from nature and people. Kathryn Clark explains

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The numbers of swifts in the UK are in decline, with more than 50 per cent of the population being lost in the past 20 years

The annual return of migratory swifts from their winter break in Africa is a key sign that spring is arriving in the UK – but this year many swifts arrived late, prompting concern among experts and the public alike.

The RSPB says it was contacted by numerous people who had noticed the absence of swifts in their area.

The numbers of swifts in the UK are in decline, with more than 50 per cent of the population having been lost in the past 20 years. This spring, the weather conditions in mainland Europe proved particularly challenging as the birds made a 6000-mile journey north to their summer nesting sites.

‘There has been some really appalling spring weather this year in Italy, France, Spain and the Balkans,’ says Edward Mayer, who runs the Swift Conservation website.

‘Temperatures should have been in the 30s but were in the low teens, and much lower at night, with prolonged rain storms making things even worse. This suppresses the swifts’ flying insect food, soaks and chills them – and can kill them.’

The wet weather was compounded by northerly winds, making it even more difficult for the swifts to migrate north.

Those birds that do make it safely to the UK face further challenges on arrival. Their typical nest sites under the eaves of houses are increasingly being blocked up, meaning they have to find new places to nest.

To highlight the plight of these birds, 22 to 29 June has been designated as ‘Swift Awareness Week’, with events being held across the UK to show how people can help boost numbers by putting up swift nest boxes and gardening for wildlife.

Members of the public can also add sightings of swifts nesting or flying around roofs to the RSPB’s swift survey, found at rspb.org.uk/swiftsurvey.

Meanwhile, construction companies building new housing developments are being encouraged to add ‘nest bricks’ – such as the one pictured above – to the gables of houses. These lead to spaces where the birds can nest inside the wall cavities.

Vets can do their bit, too. The RSPB’s John Day says that, if presented with a swift, vets may not necessarily know what to do with them. Swifts are more specialised to rehabilitate than some other birds and require a wholly insectivorous diet (eg, crickets, waxworms and mealworms). Without this, they can suffer severe feather deformities. Contact details for swift carers and advisers, and links to useful articles for vets on caring for injured swifts, can be found at https://swift-conservation.org/SwiftFirstAid.htm

More information about Swift Awareness Week is available at https://actionforswifts.blogspot.com/p/2019-swift-awareness-week.html

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