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   Inside Out - South: Monday March 7, 2005

by Chris Packham

Swift in flight
The flight of the swift is so recognisable

Historically, swifts have been known as "The Devil's Bird" - probably because of their inaccessibility and thus, just like owls, they attract more folklore than good natural history.

But of course, it's not their nocturnal nature which keeps them beyond the reach of our early investigations.

It's simply that they migrate away for the winter - something that confused observers pretty much until the 20th Century.

And when they are in Britain they only land to breed and they do that in inaccessible sites - tiny cracks high in buildings.

They feed, drink, and preen in flight and are the only group of birds known who actually mate on the wing.

They sleep in flight and in summer you'll see any non-breeding swifts spiralling up towards the stars as darkness falls, their screams fading with the daylight.

A swift
The swift is adept at scooping insects in flight

Only recently, we have discovered that these birds fly up to around 10,000ft.

It's at this altitude that they shut down half their brain, continually correcting the wind drift so they wake up where they fall asleep.

It's cooler up there and of course there are no predators. Some Swedes sussed it out using radar to track individual birds - smart!

All of these behaviours have led to the evolution of a highly aerial, sickle winged, big eyed, wide mouthed body form fitted with the shortest of legs.

Swift secrets

Although they have claws for clinging, once at rest they stumble about on their breast in a truly ungainly fashion.

Our European swifts are all dark chocolate brown with forked tails and a pale chin patch - easily distinguished from swallows and martins.

And it is these habits which meant that unlike so many equally familiar species their ecology remained an ornithological enigma for years.

A swift in the hand
A bird in the hand is worth... more than money can buy

And what is most exciting is all of their secrets are still being discovered.

Cue Graham Roberts, our swift man of Hampshire.

Over a succession of years Graham has increased and modified a series of swift nesting boxes which he has under the gable of his house.

Each is fitted with one or more small black and white infra-red camera which has allowed him a unique insight into the life of these birds.

So, between May and August, his adjoining office becomes a mini-studio and it's here that he has recorded some truly amazing sequences of previously unseen behaviour.

Coincidentally he has pioneered similar projects to pry into the private lives of peregrines nesting on buildings in Brighton and Chichester.

He's that sort of birder, inventive, clever, simply one of the best naturalists I've met.

Annual pilgrimage

Swifts collect their nesting material on the wing and gather grass which they weld with their saliva into a small cup.

Swift in nest
The parent bird exercises in a press-up motion

Later, they decorate and insulate the nest with as many feathers as they can catch.

They'll return to this nest each year and since they can live more than 20 years, that means a sustained succession of visits.

And nest sites are jealously guarded, any intruders being fiercely and noisily ejected.

Two or three plain white eggs are laid and the young are fed by both parents who return with frequent meals of insects.

These are held by the adults in a food ball in a throat pouch which is successively disgorged to the offspring.

One can only imagine the thousands of insects that are packed into these bulging birdburgers!

Now all of this was well known, there is a famous monograph by another great birder David Lack, entitled 'Swifts in a Tower' (1954) but Graham's constant and diligent attentions have revealed more details about all sorts of things.

Give a swift a home

Most extraordinary of all was when a female with eggs lost a mate and after a period of lonely incubation found another male.

He promptly came in and threw out her original eggs and she obviously laid another clutch.

Chris Packham
Chris modelling a Swift brick

Thus he had ensured that it was his offspring that he was going to be rearing, a brilliant example of the evolutionary selfish gene.

Another essential part of Graham's passion is the conservation of this species. It is declining, not least as modern buildings have fewer holes for them to nest in.

He's come up with a Swift brick, a simple way of neatly incorporating a nest box into any new building.

Early trials have been very successful. If you'd like to do your bit you can buy boxes to clip up to your eves and they work too.

Go on, get one. Swiftly.

See also ...

Inside Out: South
Red kites
Montagu's harrier
Twilight world of the badger
Orchid heaven
Dog rescue mission
Puppy farm exposed
The Great Mouse-Eared Bat
Wild boars
Migratory birds
New Forest ponies
Butterfly collectors

On the rest of Inside Out
Wind in the Willows South West
Deer crossing South West
Birds of prey under threat North East

The Common Swift

On the rest of the web
Birds of Britain

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Roger Evans
We found your piece on swifts captivating. So much to say about such a tiny and beautiful bird. The birds seem like miniature peregrine falcons - no doubt to the insects they seem far more lethal! We would love a swift box as we could watch them wheeling through the sky above our house, hunting insects for their brood and rarely resting. With our own young brood we can relate to the incessant work rate and feeding demands. It would be great to provide a box for future generations of swifts who will in turn provide aerial entertainment for both our children and others.

Hilary Durkan
I love swifts, as a child growing up in Winchester they were always a sign of summer, I would watch for their coming every spring and know that summer was here. I watched them nest under the eaves of local houses and loved to see them swoop and dive in the sky along our back road as we played coming really close to us. i was always amazed at the fact that they did not land again from fledging to nesting and thought they must be tired. I love to hear their shrill cry as they fly and this attracted my cat to them unfortunately. In the summer she would sit on the roof tops of the garages and catch the swifts out of the sky as the screamed past her. Once caught they were silent and so of no interest to her and she used to hand them over to us readily. I would carry them upstairs to my bedroom window at the top of our house (4 stories high) and release them. Watching them swoop down low to the ground before managing to flap and gain height and control again. I was so lucky to be so close to these beautiful birds, marvelling at their beautiful eyes and tiny legs, but such sharp gripping claws. Only one ever died and i was heartbroken. When I grew up I moved to Plymouth and swifts did not live near our house but I still looked for them over the city. I now live at Lee on the Solent and again the sky is filled with the sound of swifts every summer. It is a sound which evokes my childhood memories and I would love to be able to provide a home for these magnificent little birds, though I doubt I will ever be as lucky as to be so close to them again. To me swifts, more than any other bird, means summer.

Alex Quick - Aged 12
I would love a swift next box but I just can't find one anywhere. In-fact it would be ideal because every summer we have groups of 50+ flying around catching insects and going to nest near-by in a barn. So it would be a great thing for us to have a nest box and it would help them too, and I would love to see those magnificent birds flying arond and nesting in my house!

Peter Sheppard
I was very pleased to see your item on the swift and enjoyed it very much. It is such a beautiful little bird which most people dont know much about. It brought back to me an incident which occurred when I was a serving Policeman in Brighton some years ago. I was working in the Lewes Road, and got a call to see a lady who had a problem with a bird that had flown into her home and she was frightened of birds. I went to the house which fronted onto the main road, and was taken by the lady to a front room where the windows were wooden sash windows. She had opened the window to allow air into the room and so the top and bottom windows overlapped. I immediately saw the problem. This small black scimiter shaped bird had flown into the bottom window and slid up between that and the top half and got itself trapped. It did not appear to be hurt and was trying to free itself. Fortunately, I was able to reach with my fingers far enough in to get hold fo the lower body and by careful manipulation to slide the bird out into my hand. I then put this perfect little piece of nature into a more comfortable hold and was able to make sure that it was not injured in any way, its magnificent oily blue green plumage and bright eyes a delight to see. I felt very privileged. I tried to persuade the caller to examine it close up telling her why the bird was so special, but she declined. There was nobody else around at the time to share this once in a lifetimes experience. The only thing left for me to do was to clean the birds vent because it was a bit soiled and to let it go. That few minutes were very special to me but I had no-one who was interested to share it with, So I let the bird go and watched it start its ascent into the sky and to dissappear until breeding time again. A small incident in my life which I shall never forget.

Love anything about birds, that man had made an amazing research project in his roof. Thank goodness for people like him and that he contacted you.

Steph Tarling
The item on swifts - Inside Out, 7th March - made me think of the heralds of summertime that we enjoyed for twelve years in Winchester (we moved in 1998). Our house, which was on three storeys, faced north and the swifts used its height and that of the slope on which it was built, to race around and around, screaming madly throughout the season. Following the insects, they flew high on cool days and suicidally low on sultry evenings, seeming to scrape past the window of our lounge on the top floor of the house. We miss their joyful chorusing. Whether or not they nested in the roof, we could not tell for sure, but it seems likely. Bit late for the nest box, but we would have loved it back then!

Simon Boswell
Hi Chris, The house opposite me used to be owned by a woman that was passionate about swifts. She had kept records of their breeding progress since the 1960's and blocked up the eaves in early spring to stop starlings using the nest sites beofre the swifts arrived. Unfortunately the woman passed away recently. The details of all the swift breeding records and instructions on how to block up the eaves were passed on to the new owners. However they have completely renovated the property and made it unsuitable for swifts. It would be really wonderful if I could try and tempt them across the road to my house so they could continue breeding in the area. The sound of swifts careering around the skys in May is stunning and it would be brilliant to have them nesting on my house.

For the past 3 evenings i have been planning and making a bird box form my garden after school. I have had trouble getting the hole in the front panel, the wood keeps splitting and my dril bit broke i would love a swift box and to lear more about different birds.

Brian Bushnell
I would love to have a 'swift box' because I have fond memories of my childhood. I was born and brought up in Up Somborne nr Winchester and the house next to mine was thatched and swifts always nested in the thatch. I can remember when I was 7 to 9 years old finding one that had grounded but knowing even at that age that they could not lift up off the ground because of the length of their wings I picked it up and through it into the air. Unfortunately I now live at Earley, Reading and have never seen one in this area.

Thomas Robinson
my little brother is a bird fanitic and has just started bird watching. he borght two bird boxes and realy wanted to get hold of a swift box but we couldn't find one:-( he made me sit through rain and snow to make him a bird table.

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