Flickering scimitars

‘If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May,  as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see, every now and then,  one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carried on.’

Letter 21, to the Honourable Daines Barrington, in The Natural History of Selborne (1789) Gilbert White

Repainting the wall

Over a month or so, beginning in May and finishing in mid-June 2023, I repaint the back wall of our house in the far south-east of Spain. The discoloured white is long overdue for a new coat. It’s a complicated job because it’s a very large wall and in places the cliff behind the house comes within a metre of it. This means the three-part extending ladder I am using to reach the highest section is at a worryingly steep angle. I am in no desperate hurry, so I take the job bit by bit, very carefully, either early in the day or in the evening when the Andalucian heat has begun to abate and the sun is down over the ridge.

During the time I am working in this slot between the house and the cliff, in effect a canyon between a metre and three metres wide and about six metres high, I can hear birds: Sardinian warblers, red-legged partridges and collared doves among others. But best of all are the humid evenings when, across the strip of blue sky at the top of my small ravine, black scimitars flicker at great speed across my vision, accompanied by shrill shrieking. It’s such a momentary glimpse I can’t be quite certain it has really happened. The swifts are hoovering up evening insects and, it seems, letting the world know about their joy in being able to do so.

Later, I find out more. In three hours of such activity a swift might easily fly 100 miles and kill many hundreds of insects. And they are not just trawling the air with their gapes open. They prey on about 500 species of insect and hunt them selectively, so as they fly at nearly 50mph with the wind searing into their eyes, they are able to identify which individual insects to catch and which to ignore. On the surface of each of their retinas swifts have two foveae, which are very small areas packed with cone cells. These maximise the resolution of the image the eyes can see, giving swifts a massively greater ability to calculate spatial distance than, for example humans, who only have one fovea per eye. Swifts’ eyes also have a ‘brow ridge’ of stiff feathers which their muscles can control, together with slightly sunken eyes, adaptations that help protect their eyes from the pressure created by their fast flight. As dusk pulls in, I become aware that the swifts have gone. They will be much higher, getting ready to be held aloft, sleeping with one eye open.

In most birds, the pectoral muscles account for over 25% of the body weight but in the common swift that figure is only 15%. One of my regular birding companions, Alan Fisher, tells me that swifts are one of the few bird groups to have a well-developed upstroke muscle, the supracoracoidus. The combination of this musculature, a long wingspan, limited weight and narrow, flexed wings gives swifts the most economical flight of any bird, allowing stamina to be one of their defining features, the ability to fly seemingly forever.

In my small local towns of Sorbas, Vera, Turre and Carboneras this same spring I’ve been treated to screaming parties of these birds playing their ecstatic, loud roof-level game, hurtling between the buildings and along the narrow streets. So far so good, but my sense is that there are fewer swifts this year than in the past and it nags at me that this is no sudden drop in numbers but simply part of a longer-term decline.

I discover from the British Trust for Ornithology that certainly in the UK, this is the case. In 2016 the UK swift population was estimated at 59,000 pairs. Between 1995 and 2020 there was a 60% decline in numbers. The latest figure I have seen is just 48,000. The largest ever UK count was made at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire in 2020: 46,000 swifts. How would you count that number of flickering, dashing, arcing, swerving individuals? And what a spooky coincidence that the Gibraltar Point count almost equates to the total UK summer population. In 2021 the species was added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. In fact, in recent years swifts have been reclassified as ‘Near-threatened’ across the whole of Europe.

You know how it is when you suddenly take an interest in something: you begin to see references to it everywhere. On 9th May 2023, just as swifts were beginning, in a quietly obsessive way, to occupy my thoughts, Lev Parikian’s Country Diary column in The Guardian made me smile. He describes ‘brushing my teeth, idly scanning the grey rectangle of sky through the dormer window, wondering when I’d see my first swift of the year – and there it was, as if conjured by the thought.‘ He mentions the stress of waiting for the birds’ return, the strained neck muscles from scanning the sky so frequently and, even worse: ‘It’s the danger I bring to myself and my fellow West Norwoodians. Cause of death? Swifts. Or, more accurately, run over by a bus while looking for swifts.’ He ponders ‘the avian parkour that gives them their German name, Mauersegler – wall sailor’, and he reflects that: ‘The air is their medium, as a fish’s is water and an Englishman’s is mild embarrassment.’

In a comment piece in The Observer later the same month Henry Porter laments that over the village of Brockley in Gloucestershire he has seen no more than three or four breeding pairs, whereas the previous year he estimated 16 to 20 pairs with an end-of-season exodus of between 50 and 60 birds. He says: ‘The disappearance of swifts from our skies is one of the saddest prospects of this epoch of casual extermination.’ He homes in on the 60% decline in insects over the last 20 years in Britain as a key factor, though not the only one, in the sad diminution of swift numbers.

I send Henry Porter’s article to my long-time friend Pete Brown, one of my birding gurus, in Sheffield. A reply follows promptly: ‘Kev, I read the Observer article last night at the end of a day spent mostly working in the garden, a day when not a single swift appeared over the roof tops of Millhouses (the suburb in south-west Sheffield where Pete lives) despite reasonable weather conditions. When we first moved here screaming parties of up to a dozen birds were the norm. A pair nested under our roof. The gaps there remain but it’s been many’s the long year since they’ve been used by swifts. And just to complete my day’s unscientific but telling non-observations I sat by the attic window for half an hour around dusk with bat recorder to hand and in that time recorded just one passing bat. And so? We continue to do what the writer urges us to do (I refer to this later in this chapter). I’m well content to let the weeds proliferate around our garden walls and along the back alley and I’ll forward the article with a personal note to the street’s WhatsApp group.’

Common Swift – Antonio Benitez Paz

Quietly entranced by swifts

Without really thinking about it in any sort of focused way, I realise I have always been quietly entranced by swifts but now I want to know more. I order a copy of Charles Foster’s book The Screaming Sky: In Pursuit of Swifts. It is as good as I hoped it might be. In fact, it’s better. He is enthusiastic, committed and knowledgeable, and he writes superbly as he goes to Greece and Spain and Israel and deepest central and eastern Africa on the trail of this species.

He is clear-headed, detached even. He rails against those who consider swifts to be ‘theirs’, even such literary luminaries as Ted Hughes, and yet, as his round-the-calendar tale of swift pursuit unfolds, it becomes apparent that he is as enthralled as anyone by these magical and mysterious birds. He’s intrigued by the science, saying: ‘We can tie harnesses on to swifts and clip on light-level geo-locators… and we can sequence their DNA… and if anything it will diminish our real knowledge of swifts’. One of the points he’s making is that swifts don’t care what we think of them. They aren’t performing for us, they’re just being swifts.

They only spend about three months of their year in the UK, so they are quite definitely not ‘our’ swifts. Whether both halves of a swift pair ever see one another during their nine-month absence from the UK is unknown but, if they are both still alive, they arrive back within a few days of each other. Foster again: ‘Swifts know the roar of lions better than the roar of the M25… the centre of a cloud better than a fibreglass-lined hole in a suburban street’. As for clouds, swifts bathe by diving through them or by vibrating their wings as they fly through rain. The mysteries of swift migration are touched on by Chris Lambert, who sends me this: ‘A few years ago I was working on the Tokolili iron ore mine near Bumbuna in Sierra Leone. It is on the Rokel River and one evening when I got back to the camp the sky was black with swifts, and the noise deafening! Next morning they’d all gone. I often wondered if they flew across the Sahara or along the coast; either way there would be little water for that part of their migration.’

Charles Foster describes ‘a brisk and prosaic neighbour’, a noted scientist in fact who, when faced with Foster’s deep enthusiasm for swifts, says to him: “Get a life. Some birds come from Africa, right. They’re nice birds. We like watching them. They eat, they fuck, they feed their babies, they go, they come back and then they do it all over again. End of story.” Charles Foster falls out big-time with this particular neighbour, describing him a number of times in his book as an ex-friend. Good for Charles Foster. I would fall out with someone like that too.

Anecdotal evidence

So the scientific evidence is available, swift numbers are down in the UK, as are insect numbers, but I am also interested in anecdotal evidence, so I put a short post on Facebook asking for observations and also email a few likely friends who are not on social media. I soon realise that there is clearly something about swifts that tugs at people, including those who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves birders. Responses begin to come in, with Peter Sloan, who I only met relatively recently, sending this typical reflection: ‘For me, swifts are the heralds of summer. I’ve been fortunate to have offices in two different schools, one in Cumbria and one in Nottinghamshire, that gave me a grandstand view of returning swifts. The screams of the swifts were the promise of the coming holidays!’

Several of my Sheffield friends respond. Al Churcher says: ‘Saw my first of the year last week from the conduit track leading over from Redmires. Just hawking fairly low down. Seem to be more curlews than swifts around here now. Such a sad decline. I remember when I lived on the side of the hill on Carsick View Road in the late 70s, where there was a superb updraught, there would be 30 or 40 of them, screaming above the house-tops every evening at this time of the year. Really thrilling display.’

From Liz Birkby, in the south west of the same city, came a bleak comment: ‘Have only seen one so far this year.’ And here’s my old teaching colleague Jon Beddus, who lives near Hunter’s Bar in Sheffield, adding: ‘Up until about five years ago we had lots, in the evening you got small groups screeching around, such a great sight. Recently hardly any. They came in on the same date as normal but I’m only occasionally seeing one or two. Can’t see that the nest opportunities have changed – it’s all the same housing. Lack of insects?’

Pete Brown is obviously monitoring the Facebook comments, for he emails me with further thoughts: ‘Just to reinforce the loss of swifts around here. A count of three on two occasions was the maximum total over the former Millhouses stronghold this spring/early summer, occasionally two but on most mornings/evenings none at all and this when weather conditions are at their most favourable. Silent Spring comes to mind.’

Pete continues: ‘Of course, when things are commonplace we tend not to record them so it’s all about recollections of screaming parties of a dozen or so birds over the houses and pairs nesting on Hastings Road and indeed in the 1980s on Marriott Road (the street where Pete has lived for several decades). I’m very much aware of declining numbers in recent years though counts have been occasionally boosted by birds from other areas feeding over the River Sheaf and adjacent woodland in cooler wet weather. I’ve seen nothing of that so far this year.

‘I echo Jon (Beddus)’s comments, there are accessible roof cavities in the area including ours and while a loss of nest sites to home ‘improvements’ is certainly a factor in some locations, a dearth of flying insects must be a factor. I’m repeating a ‘Swift Walk’ in Bradwell early in July where we had reasonable numbers last year, where there’s been a real drive to install boxes and sound equipment (including in Sally Pereira’s house where they had three pairs nesting in boxes with cameras fitted) and where agriculture in the surrounding area is relatively unintensive (does that word exist?).’

Les Senior from near Barnsley adds his thoughts: ‘As luck would have it, I look out my front room window and what do I see… swifts. I see them most days. I would say a slightly better number than last year, feeding across the road over old horse paddocks and the tree-lined railway siding. Invariably they are accompanied by house martins. Farming set aside and less use of pesticides I hope will sustain enough on-the-wing food for them. I have seen some small scale impetus to get people to put up swift nesting boxes on their houses. I will probably make a couple and put them up myself ready for next year. It would be a huge loss if swifts disappear from UK skies. I remember living in an old house in Norfolk and come the end of July/early August I’d watch the screaming hunting juveniles rushing round in large parties and sometimes being ambushed by the local hobby.’

Apus apus. The common swift. 15 cm long. Plain brown-black with a tiny patch of off-white on the throat. Large head with huge dark eyes. Tiny dark beak. Short dark legs set far forward on the body. Wing span 42-49 cm. Wings hugely long, extending well beyond tail. Weight of bird, about 40 gms, the same as four £1 coins. An ounce and a half in old money. When not ‘flickering’ or ‘winnowing’ it holds its wings totally still at about 45 degrees down from its body. Catches tiny insects – ‘aerial plankton’ – continually in flight and stores them, bound by sticky saliva, in a sub-lingual pouch. Can have 300 – 1,000 insects and a bulge in the throat weighing 2.5 gm before returning to nest.

Pallid Swift -Antonio Benitez Paz

Swifts in A Tower

In his seminal book Swifts in A Tower, published almost 70 years ago, David Lack revealed some astonishing insights into the birds. His research focussed on the swift colony in the Museum Tower in Oxford. He suggested that the common swift consumes a wider range of animals than any other British bird. Part of his evidence was his meticulous investigation of 12 balls of saliva-glued food, which he called ‘meals’, brought into an Oxford nest. Teasing them apart, he identified 312 species of spiders and insects. He also calculated that about 50 gm of food was caught in a day, about 20,000 insects in total, more or less equal to the weight of an adult swift.

Some 25 years later, in the summer of 1979 the aphid population in the UK was described as reaching plague proportions. One swift meal brought to the Tower in Oxford in the first week of July contained a total of 898 insects comprising 726 aphids (very small but highly nutritious), 48 leaf-hoppers, 23 crane-flies, 22 spittle-bugs, 18 dung-flies, 13 ladybirds, 10 ants and smaller numbers of bugs and thrips. Back in the day I remember teasing apart owl pellets with the keen youngsters of a wildlife group I ran at the school where I was teaching and being intrigued by the contents but whoever identified the 898 components of that particular swift meal definitely deserved a medal.

A significant reduction in the number of flying insects is implicated in the declining population of swifts. A good place to find out more about this is in Michael McCarthy’s fine book The Moth Snowstorm, which was published in 2015. Moths, mostly being nocturnal, are not a major food item for swifts but as McCarthy says: ‘I know there are many other insects… but let the moths stand proxy for the rest.’ He describes the phenomenon, well remembered by those of us alive in the 1950s and 1960s, of the ‘moth snowstorm’ when: ‘The headlight beams of a speeding car on a muggy summer’s night in the countryside, turning the moths into snowflakes and crowding them together the faster you went, in the manner of a telephoto lens, meant that the true startling scale of their numbers was suddenly apparent, not least as they plastered the headlights and the windscreen until driving became impossible, and you had to stop the car to wipe the glass surfaces clean.’ He also quotes the TV naturalist Chris Baines: ‘Yes, I remember it very well but I did also experience it on my bike. I used to cycle to Cubs or to church choir practice and you would get them in your eye, or if you had your mouth open, you ended up spitting out bits of moth wing, there were just so many in the air on any evening.’

Many people of a certain age have similar recollections but for a long time there were no scientific figures to back up the apparent decline in insect numbers that seemed evident from the 1960s onwards. However, a long-running study was taking place, co-ordinated by Rothamsted, the agricultural research station in Hertfordshire. From 1968 to 2002 they had a nationwide network of volunteers operating traps and monitoring moth numbers. The results of the survey were made public in February 2006 and were astounding. Britain’s moths were in big trouble. Of the 337 species examined, two-thirds were declining. 80 species had decreased by 70% or more and 20 of these had gone down by over 90%. Total cumulative decline over the 34 years of the study was reckoned to be 44%. As McCarthy says: ‘The snowflakes which had made up the snowstorm were simply no longer there.’

From elsewhere in the UK, more replies to my call come in and the depressing anecdotal pattern is repeated. Here’s Dave Bridges: ‘When I moved to Chesham in Buckinghamshire in 1988 the sky was alive with swifts and we had about 6-8 pairs nesting in our roof. The early mornings were punctuated with the sound of landings and take-offs from all round the house as the feeding frenzy began. Many a time we had to rescue swifts from upstairs rooms as they misjudged their entry to the nest and came in through the windows. The loft often contained disorientated youngsters and, in our first year here, before we knew we had a serious colony, I had to fish a couple of dead swifts out of the cold water tank. I was alerted by small dark feathers appearing when I ran a bath! The tank was quickly covered from that point. In the past decade numbers have declined dramatically.             ‘This year the swifts returned much later than usual and fewer in number. Only two pairs in the south-facing roof space and none east and north. There are screaming parties still visible but only half a dozen birds. The upper sky, at this time of year, used to be full of swifts, along with red kites. No longer. Kites congregate in large numbers but swifts are few and far between. Some say that pesticides are diminishing the aerial plankton. Combined with modern housing and the closing of roof spaces this will clearly have a negative impact. I’ve put up a swift nest box this year but no takers. Such wonderful and mysterious birds. We must do all we can to arrest this decline.’ What Dave says is of interest not least because swifts are strongly colonial and highly social. A colony can have between three and thirty-four pairs and the birds will be highly loyal to their colony.

From Cambridge, Alastair Reid reports: ‘As for swifts, I would say they came later and in smaller numbers this year, and this highly changeable and often cold weather does not seem to suit them.’ John Cowling, a birding friend who lives near Weston-super-Mare on the shores of the Bristol Channel, replying in mid-July to a later query from me, writes: ‘Funny you should ask about swifts as this year there have been a couple of dozen most days, but hardly any swallows and just a few house martins. Unfortunately not big numbers of swifts, and none tonight.’

Jon Large, who lives in Braintree, Essex, says: ‘Re swifts, it’s been especially delightful to notice them this year, partly because of the lack of them most of the time.’ Which, despite Jon’s upbeat tone, is a kind of back-handed compliment as far as the health of the swift population goes. Jon adds: ‘The most I’ve seen at one time this year was a gang of about 15-20 screaming around the church tower at East Portlemouth in South Devon, a relatively remote spot, especially for traffic. Other sightings have only been two to six individuals in various places around the east and south of England from Norfolk to Devon.’

Pete Adeline, who lives not far from Kingsbridge in South Devon, writes: ‘Just for the record, my subjective impression is that we have had about the same number, maybe a couple of dozen each year, in the skies above the house.’ From rural Shropshire John Sewell tells me: ‘The end terrace house across the back garden from us has had swifts nesting in the gable verge every year since we’ve been here. Fortunately the numbers seem more or less stable. Having the farm nearby is probably a draw for the birds.’

So it seems they are still about but in noticeably reduced numbers. Earlier, on the day I type this, I am walking across Sheffield to a friend’s house on a late July afternoon with clouds massing. I hear screams and look up. Fifteen or so swifts are hawking high above me. I realise how tied they are to atmospheric conditions and the layers of the sky in which insects abound. In the mornings they won’t be evident until the day has warmed up and the insects are there for them to hunt. But yes, they are there. A fragment of hope survives in my heart.

People who know only one thing about swifts tend to know that they almost never land and that they sleep on the wing. When flying at night a swift alternates between a phase of wing-beats and a phase of rest. This involves 6-8 wing-beats per second for between 1 and 6 seconds, followed by a resting phase lasting from 0.5 to 5 seconds.

In the remarkable book One Midsummer’s Day (2023), self-proclaimed as ‘a book written entirely in a time of pandemic’, Mark Cocker is on top form. The book’s strap-line is ‘Swifts and the Story of Life on Earth’. Through a passionate love letter to swifts, the author situates both them and humans in such a way as to tell how we, all life on earth, are interlinked and interdependent. He gives the total population of common swifts on the planet as somewhere between 40 million and 200 million but reminds us that ‘swifts are living mysteries’, ‘they are on the edge of knowability’. In both this book and his earlier Crow Country (2007), Cocker starts ‘from a position that matters we assume to be everyday and ordinary are, in fact, wonder-filled and extraordinary’. Swifts’ vocalisations, he says, are ‘urgent and shrill to the point of hysteria’. He is a riveting writer, as swifts are riveting birds.

Nowadays I am only occasionally in Sheffield, where I used to live between 1968 and 2005. Since 2005 I have lived in Almería province in south-eastern Spain, and here there’s a mixed pattern. Susu Morrison reports from the fertile valley where she lives just outside Lubrín: ‘Definitely fewer round us. Usually when I walk into the village they are screaming and wheeling above me but it’s pretty quiet this year.’ Peter Sloan also lives just outside Lubrín and says: ‘We don’t see many in our valley here, small foraging parties late in a summer afternoon. Vera town centre has always been full of swifts in season, although I did wonder if there were quite so many this year. Lubrín Plaza is another great place to enjoy swifts and house martins.’ Richard Westcott reflects: ‘Numbers seem to be holding in Níjar. Having said that, I’ve never tried to make a count.’ Alfie Waldon says: ‘Hardly any here in Los Jardines near Turre compared to previous years,’ and a day later adds: ‘We are at a concert in La Alfoquía and there are four swifts flying. Not many but more than at Los Jardines … Make that five.’

From the coast in Mojácar, Alan Fisher reports: ‘I thought there were fewer but I can’t quantify it. From our apartment on the playa I see them arrive in small groups that always spend some minutes wheeling and circling near our building as if ‘doing a recce’ for potential nest sites. One pair did nest in a vertical crack in the render immediately below our balcony a few years ago but that hasn’t been repeated since.’

Brian Eagleson is much more positive: ‘I think they’re all circling around our house just outside Bédar! Seriously, there’s no shortage of them here.’ Closer to the coast, Sandra Hayward reports: ‘Our impression is that there are fewer swifts around us at Vera Playa Salinas this year. Few in the mornings and evenings feeding. Sorry can’t be more precise.’ David Elliott-Binns reports: ‘I get the impression there are fewer swifts this year. Our nearest nesting colony is in the man-made rock face below and to the right of Arboleas Town Hall.’ Slightly further north-west, towards Baza, the good people who run the wildlife rehabilitation centre at Cortijo Búho say: ‘Far fewer in the valley here this year. I wondered whether it had any connection to there being no sheep here since the virus wiped out three flocks. Fewer flies to eat perhaps.’

German swift biologist Ulrich Tigge has identified swifts as arriving in Europe in four waves. First comes the Advance Guard. Its numbers are very small: ones, twos, up to five, which appear and then vanish again. Maybe these are ambitious young would-be breeders? Ten or eleven days later the Vanguard arrives. This is the first arrival of the established breeders, going confidently to their traditional nest sites. About three days after this the Main Body arrives, the bulk of those who have bred before. This is as far as we know, and what we definitely do know about swifts is that there is an awful lot we don’t yet know. Finally, the Rearguard show up several weeks after the Main Body. These will be immatures, not expecting to breed. Maybe this explains Alan Fisher’s observation from Mojácar: ‘One thing I thought was interesting this time was the arrival of a group, behaving as if scouting for possible nest sites, and although I don’t have the date it was early July, a really late arrival.’ Swifts don’t breed until their third or fourth year but are known to prospect for nest sites before that.

Reports from a bit further away are not so bleak. Tineke Vlijm, who lives near Alicante, says: ‘In Villajoyosa, end of April, beginning of May we saw hundreds of them, probably mostly migratory, but two to three weeks later there were a second lot, smaller numbers and they stayed.’ I also hear from Alex Ford in the south of France. She records: ‘About the same number as usual here in Nice. Charging about in gangs and screaming! We really notice them because we’re on the fourth floor with tall wraparound glass windows/doors, so we see all their antics. We love them. Spring is underway properly when the swifts are back! They were later this year… because it was colder?’

Mark Cocker again: ‘Part of the joy of the birds is something I find in almost any wild creature: that they are entirely themselves – distinct, perfect and free. From none of them do I require a response. I don’t need them to acknowledge my existence. I don’t want them as friends or pets.’

Early July 2023. We are driving north in our trusty 27-year old VW campervan, through Spain and France to the UK for our long summer visit to friends and family. The first night finds us in Almenara, north of Valencia. We arrive late in the evening and leave early the next morning, but we have long enough to register that there are swifts about. Two nights later we are at Nébias in the French Pyrenees, staying with our friends Sarah Ball and Trevor Pitman. They are very knowledgeable botanists and equally clued up on birds, butterflies and the rest of the natural world. Mornings with croissants and early evenings with a glass or two of something red, we sit out behind their house. The conversation is continuous, well-informed or questing and often humorous. Some of it relates to the healthy numbers of swifts screaming around the rooftops of the village. It’s not just the red wine that gladdens our hearts. Trevor and Sarah tell us that the local departement, Aude, has an official default policy against the use of pesticides. It shows: as we walk to the Labyrinthe Verte, a maze of trees and limestone pavement, there are wildflowers and butterflies in profusion, as well as yellowhammers and red-backed shrikes.

And another swift coincidence: on a table in Trevor and Sarah’s house I see a copy of Jonathan Pomroy’s On Crescent Wings: A Portrait of the Swift. I remember seeing it here before, on our last visit a few years ago. I leaf though it again. It’s an engaging mix of paintings, sketches, text and handwritten notes from a confirmed swiftophile, a lovely book. After three days we tear ourselves away from Nébias and motor north. The following two nights see us in St Pourçain-sur-Sioule, north of Clermont-Ferrand, and then St Remy-sur-Avre near Evreux. In both places the evenings produce plentiful swifts. There is plenty of ‘social screaming’. Scientists don’t know why swifts do this. For me, it can remain a mystery. The screamers are out and I am happy. Maybe all is not lost.

Pallid Swift -Antonio Benitez Paz

Devil Birds

It’s early autumn and I am back at home in southern Spain, reading more about swifts.  ‘Swing devil’, ‘Develing’, ‘Devil’s screech’, ‘Skeer devil’, ‘Devil bird’, just a few among the many country names for the common swift. As I read that last one I immediately think of a book I used to have.  I remember it clearly: a slim, wide paperback with lots of photos, Devil Birds by Derek Bromhall. I am pretty sure I no longer have it. I don’t recall seeing it for years and I assume it was a victim of carelessness during a move, or a particularly vicious cull of the shelves, or even, best scenario, I made a present of it to someone who I thought would appreciate it. Then I think, I’ll just go and check in the study. Up the spiral stairs and aiming at the shelves, non-fiction, over to the left where B will be. Alphabetical by surname of author. And there, tucked right at the end of a shelf, almost hidden, slim enough to have been unnoticed all these years, is Devil Birds: The Life of the Swift. I take it down, report this joyful discovery to Troy, make a cup of tea, and settle down with it. Gradually, my memory is refreshed.

Derek Bromhall describes when, as a boy hunting for birds’ eggs in the Shropshire countryside, he became fascinated with what the local boys called ‘Jacky Squealers’. ‘I was intrigued by a bird whose nest I never found and frustrated at not being able to include its eggs in my treasured collection.’ Only much later did he see the eggs of the common swift, when he first climbed the ladders in the roof of the Museum Tower in Oxford ‘… long after my collecting days were over, when the urge to acquire and label … had given way to the desire to capture the lives of wild creatures on film’.

He went up the ladders many times because he spent two seasons filming the swift colony in the tower where David Lack did the research for his groundbreaking book Swifts In A Tower. Bromhall filmed during the scorching summer of 1976 and the more normal one of 1977, and his observations formed the basis of his detailed and sympathetic paean to swifts, published in 1980. I was delighted to have remade its acquaintance.

Derek Bromhall wrote: ‘In the case of the swift it might be supposed that its life is so remote from ours that our influence on it must be minimal.’ But he then goes on to mention the loss of nest sites due to changes to buildings and worries that: ‘The swift is in fact in greater potential danger now than at any time in the past. To counteract this we should now be installing nest-boxes for swifts wherever this is feasible.’  Two points occur to me: first, he was saying this clearly over forty years ago. We humans take a long time to catch on. Second, this was before the era of swift bricks.

Dave Thompson and I first met as teenage schoolboys chasing an inflated bladder round a freezing, muddy soccer pitch at a boys’ grammar school a couple of miles inland from the Lincolnshire coast in the mid-1960s. He went on to have a notable academic career and, a few years ago, retired to north Norfolk to pursue his birding interests in that ornithological mecca.

I send an almost complete version of this piece to Dave and a few days later this comes back:  ‘My first academic job was as a Demonstrator in Ecology in the Animal Ecology Research Group in Oxford University’s Zoology Department. With the job came lots of perks not least of which was access to Oxford University’s Museum Tower. I can’t tell you how often I took people up the rickety ladder in the Tower. I met Derek Bromhall around that time. It was said in those days (1976-79) that you could set your calendar to the 1st May, the day the first swifts arrived. Like your other correspondents, Cley residents have noted a decline in swift numbers, especially this year.’

As I read more about swifts my knowledge and understanding increase, as does my astonishment. They enter their nest holes at 43mph. How is that possible? How can the necessary deceleration be achieved? Yet it is. And what a place to call home. But of course, I realise I am using language loosely. A roof space is not a swift’s home, a swift’s home is the endless sky.

One of the instructive pleasures of having sent out a version of this piece to various friends is that my knowledge is increased by the replies that I get. Pete Adeline contributes this: ‘A rough calculation on the back of a fictional fag packet suggests that a swift weighing 40g entering a nest box at 43mph and coming to a halt in say 4 inches, would experience a decelerating force of 8g. Give it 6 inches to stop and it would be just under 5g. Pretty robust birds, and I wouldn’t like to be a swift thinking it had 6 inches when it only had 4. Disclaimer: This is my first applied maths calculation in 25 years. I might be wrong.’ The next day, Pete adds this: ‘I’ve had my calculations checked by a real mathematician-friend. All okay.’

A newly-hatched swift weighs about 2.75 grammes. In good weather it will increase its weight twenty-fold in the first month. After about four weeks the swiftlets begin to strengthen their wings by pressing them to the floor in an attempt to lift their body and feet. By the time they are able to hold such a ‘press-up’ for ten seconds, something hard-wired inside tells them they are ready to launch. In the final week before it fledges, a swiftlet’s wings lengthen as its body optimizes its ‘lift to drag’ ratio. This is critical. The youngsters are totally inexperienced in the matter of hunting. If they were too heavy their job of chasing down insects would be made even more difficult. Even so, a fledgling swift will weigh about 56 gm, marginally heavier than its parents. This extra weight has to see it through what Mark Cocker calls ‘the bottleneck of independence, the time between its complete dependence on its parents and its ability, after its launch into the unknown sky, to catch sufficient of its own food’. But when the fledglings take the plunge they still have shorter wings than the adults and these only gradually lengthen during their first migration to Africa.

Once fledged and out of its nest-cavity, a swift flies. That’s what it is built to do. There are wildly differing estimates of the distance a swift might typically fly in a year. One figure I have seen is 500 miles per day. A swift can live for 21 years. 500 miles a day for 21 years is over 3,800,000 miles. But once again, we simply don’t know for sure. Contrary to popular belief, swifts do land occasionally, perhaps for about 1% of their time, though this will only be in extreme circumstances such as when faced with very threatening weather conditions.

Pallid Swift – Tommy Finlayson

So, what can we do?

So, swifts are declining. What can we do to help them? Henry Porter: ‘We start by recognising what’s happening on our watch. We put up boxes.’ I divert to tell you this: Major Henry Douglas-Home describes, in his book The Birdman, how in 1953 he installed ten swift nest-boxes of his own design under the window-sills of his country pile (my words, not his) The Hirsel, in the Scottish Borders. In the following year, swifts occupied all the boxes. At the time, his brother Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister and on one occasion when the PM was in conference with the Queen at The Hirsel, Major Henry took Prince Philip to see the swifts. The latter was so excited that he promptly arranged for 25 nest-boxes to be installed on the terraces at Windsor Castle. Sadly, I have not been able to find out whether this royal initiative bore fruit.

Henry Porter continues: ‘We allow our lawns to grow out until July and see wild flowers take hold. We stop using garden pesticides, felling trees and clearing insect habitat. We compel water companies to stop polluting. We form groups and interrogate local farmers about the pesticides they’re using. We show our children, maybe with a cheap magnifying glass, the wonder of a bronze beetle or a red soldier beetle crawling across the lace work of a hemlock flower. Nature is not something separate. It’s not a resource. It is us, our world.’

In the spring of 2023 an e-petition started by Hannah Bourne-Taylor caught the attention of a supportive British public, or at least enough of them, 109,894 to be precise, to prompt a parliamentary debate. The subject was simple enough. It was asking that local authorities mandate the installation of swift bricks in new housing developments in their area. Here I will veer off at a slight tangent, having come across a few lines in Helen Macdonald’s essay Nests. She writes: ‘But some birds’ nests seem so far from nests at all that the word itself drifts and almost loses purchase.’ She goes on to talk about different types of nests, finishing with that of a swift: ‘… a dark space under roof tiles where you can crawl on your mouse feet and your wings drag like feathered blades the colour of carbon steel.’ It is such spaces under roof tiles that are steadily disappearing, hence the petition.

The Commons debate was set for 10 July 2023 and the signs were promising. The debate was opened with an enthusiastic speech by Matt Vickers (Conservative, Stockton South), in whose constituency Hannah Bourne-Taylor lives. He urged that the Government (controlled by his own party at the time) bring in a requirement for local authorities to be more proactive with swift bricks, pointing out that only eight local authorities, including Exeter City Council, an example of best practice, had mandated the inclusion of swift bricks in new developments. He explained that the loss of swift nest sites came from factors such as the demolition of 50,000 buildings annually, and the understandable demands of energy efficiency which blocked existing gaps and niches with concrete and insulating foam.

MPs from across the political spectrum added their voices. The substantial figure of Kit Malthouse (Con, North West Hampshire), who looked like the archetypal comfortable Tory from the shires who might oppose anything that smacked of state prescription or positive action, rose to report his regret that ring-necked parakeets had taken over the six wooden swift boxes that he had installed on his house some years ago. His boxes were deteriorating and, as they were prone to having their entrance holes enlarged by aggressive species, he was very much in favour of swift bricks. Labour MPs added their voices. Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) said she had “lucked out” when the RSPB asked her to be their ‘Swift Champion’ in Parliament. Another swift-supporting MP was Samantha Dixon (Lab, City of Chester) who loves the sound of screaming swifts so much that she uses it as the ringtone on her phone, “though it has been known to confuse birders.”

Robert Courts (Con, Witney) described the swift as a “breathtakingly charismatic” species and gave a powerful injection of support to the argument. Most enthusiastic though, was Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) who said that since 2020 in Brighton, any new building over five metres tall has to include swift bricks. She described the renovation of Brighton General Hospital, which had had the second largest colony of nesting swifts in the south of England, many using decaying ventilator panels for access. Swift bricks were retrofitted as the renovation proceeded, a simple process and a flagship example.

The public support the idea, environmental groups and swift experts are obviously in favour, and even some developers are on board. Barratt Developments has, since 2016, installed swift nesting bricks in the external walls of new homes as they are being built. By 2022, it hit its initial goal of installing 4,000 swift bricks into its homes and announced a new uprated target of 7,000 bricks to be installed by the end of 2025.

Since 2014 the Duchy of Cornwall has installed an average of one box per residential home on all its developments including an extension to Newquay called Nansledan which will ultimately have 4,000 homes. By 2019 at least 500 boxes had been installed in the new communities built on Duchy of Cornwall land at Nansledan and Poundbury (Dorchester), and smaller but still significant housing developments elsewhere in Cornwall, Dorset and Oxfordshire. The Duchy’s commitment could conceivably lead to between 5-8,000 swift boxes being installed over the next 30 years.

The debate appeared to be going well until, as it was being wound up, the Communities Minister Dehenna Davison (Con, Bishop Auckland) announced that mandating swift bricks is not something the Government is planning to do: “We would not want to add unnecessary complexity to a planning system that already faces a great deal of it.” Caroline Lucas responded: “I cannot believe what I’m hearing. This brick costs about 25 quid. That is a tiny amount for new developments.” Even worse was that the Communities Minister’s opposite number, Matthew Pennycook (Lab, Greenwich and Woolwich) was similarly negative, saying it was better to “allow for local discretion”.

And so an open goal was spectacularly missed by a Government whose track record on nature and the environment is woefully inadequate. The Wryneck, a blog of ‘News, Pictures and Comment from the Birding World’, summed it up by saying ‘the Minister and Shadow Minister sucked the oxygen out of the debate with their depressing responses which basically spelt out the ‘we-can’t-really-be-bothered’ message’.

That wasn’t quite the end of it though. The Guardian reported on 4th September 2023 that an amendment (Amendment 221A, to be precise) to the ‘levelling-up bill’ to make swift bricks mandatory was about to be debated in the House of Lords. It was tabled by Tory peer Zac Goldsmith, who had earlier resigned from the government because of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s apathy towards environmental issues. Again, the idea had cross-party support, with Goldsmith saying: “Their natural nesting sites have all but vanished, and this tiny step would rectify that on a meaningful scale. And who wouldn’t want to have swifts nesting in their homes?” Following the debate in the Lords, the amendment remained in the text of the bill. If it still remains after the Report Stage of the Bill, it will proceed to the Third Reading in the House of Commons.

But back to swifts themselves. They get in everywhere once you start to see them. At the end of a visit to the thoroughly rewarding vision that is the Eden Project in Cornwall, a long promised and very belated 40th birthday present to my stepson Luke Roberts, I buy many things in the shop strategically placed just before the exit: a bag of coffee recommended by the guide who had talked to us in the Rainforest Biome; a pair of rather fetching earrings for my wife of 29 years, Luke’s mum (stay with me, I’ll get there), and several books, one of which is a sumptuous paperback edition of an anthology called The Wild Isles, edited by Patrick Barkham. It’s a collection of ‘the Best of British and Irish Nature Writing’ so, as a fan of both the editor and the subject matter, I’ve been tempted in

I scan the contents and what do I find? The first extract included is about swifts and is by the person considered to be the UK’s first ecologist and nature writer, Gilbert White. He was one of the first to observe live birds rather than shooting them in order to inspect them close up. His nature writing mostly took the form of letters to friends (see the quote at the top of this chapter). In effect his letters were essays, and the one about swifts included in The Wild Isles is full of remarkable insights and enthusiastic descriptions from two and a half centuries ago. Here are just two such observations: ‘In the longest days it does not withdraw to rest till a quarter before nine in the evening, being the latest of all day birds. Just before they retire whole groups of them assemble high in the air, and squeak, and shoot about with wonderful rapidity.’ ‘When they mute, or ease themselves in flight, they raise their wings, and make them meet over their backs.’ White’s writing is full of such intriguing intimacies.

Despite the depressing political saga related above, there is plenty that ordinary citizens are doing out there to support swifts. In February of 2023, by happy coincidence I was in Sheffield when my friend Pete Brown was giving a talk about his book The Northumbrian Garden Parrot to the Sheffield Bird Study Group. I met Pete beforehand and he introduced me to a lively and enthusiastic woman, Chet Cunago, who he described as his Spanish teacher. Apart from being Pete’s Spanish teacher, (a thankless task, I would venture to suggest), Chet founded and runs Sheffield Swift Rescue. You can check out their Facebook page and discover, for example, that in 2022 Chet cared for and ultimately released 47 swiftlets. And as I revise this rumination on swifts for the umpteenth time, I get a message from Chet to say her final total for swifts helped in 2023 was 35 young and three adults. She adds: ‘For 14 weeks I didn’t leave my front (or back) door. The stress and sleeplessness really gets to me though so I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again next year. God knows how bad I’ll feel though when I hear of swifts in trouble and nowhere for them to go. I think I already know the answer.’ That was followed by a laughing emoji, so I think we know that in 2024, for between three and four months, Chet will be exhausting herself helping swiftlets again because, as she says: ‘… as soon as they open those wings their other worldliness takes over and they become the magnificent ethereal creature.’

A few minutes of online searching for other local initiatives reveals that Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust are pursuing their goal to make Sheffield a ‘Swift City’. I also find Devon Swifts, Norwich Swift Network, Aylsham Swift Group, Save Our Suffolk Swifts and Ludlow Swift Group. There will be many more.

And then there is John Stimpson, perhaps the most astonishing individual champion of swifts. He came to national prominence when his efforts were saluted by Chris Packham. So what has he done, this retired salesman of Weetabix and agricultural labels who lives just outside Ely in Cambridgeshire? He has made swift nest-boxes. He began doing so in 2007 at which time he could manage three a day. As his skills and equipment improved, he got to making 30 boxes per 13-hour day. “I get so much pleasure from wildlife. Building these boxes is one way I can pay it back.” Paying it back, paying it forward, such a wonderful principle.

On 20th January 2022 John Stimpson turned 80, by which time he had achieved his goal of 30,000 swift boxes. His boxes are in use all over the UK, as well as in Sweden, France, Spain and Italy. He has a local focus though, working with groups such as Action for Swifts and the Suffolk Bird Group who run Save Our Suffolk Swifts. Dick Newell of Action for Swifts has 66 pairs of nesting swifts in his village, Landbeach in Cambridgeshire, 20 of them on his house. His simple take on this: “Swifts are the one thing where an individual can make a difference. They are terrific birds.” In Cumbria, members of Sedbergh Community Swifts have put up 140 boxes: 133 were made by John Stimpson and seven copies were made by local schoolchildren. An informal survey of 99 of the boxes in 2021 found that 46 of them were occupied.

There is no data on how many of John’s 30,000 boxes are being used by swifts but in theory he could be housing half of the UK’s swift population. Chris Packham calls John’s efforts: “An astonishing achievement and a magnificent contribution to UK conservation.” John Stimpson himself is happy that: “The number of swift groups that have started up in the last five to eight years is quite staggering. And they seem to go from strength to strength.” As John Stimpson testifies, there are many bands of swift activists, groups which survive and thrive because of the enthusiasm of a few utterly committed people backed up by many members of the public who make donations to support their brilliant work.

And in a rather quirky kind of positive feedback loop, after I send what I think is an almost final version of this essay out to the friends who have contributed to it, further replies come in. Alastair Reid, who already has a small but quite wild garden in urban Cambridge, says: ‘It makes me more worried about swifts than before though, so I will let my garden go wilder for more insects.’ Pete Adeline signs off an email to me with: ‘Note to self: get making swift boxes.’ Pete’s woodworking skills are exceptional, so I am sure the South Devon swifts will be queuing up to use his boxes. And from Dave Bridges: ‘So, before next Spring, I will erect a few more swift boxes and when the birds arrive I will endeavour to monitor their numbers and comings and goings more forensically.’

Here in Spain Tineke Vlijm mentions to me the Asociación del Casco Antiguo de Villajoyosa which, loosely translated, is the Association of the Old Town of Villajoyosa, a place of about 40,000 people on Spain’s Mediterranean coast south of Valencia. Their Facebook page has good information and videos to raise awareness about threats to swift’s nesting cavities and advice for anyone finding a swift nestling on the ground.

A recent edition of the journal Birds of Andalucía contains an article about the ‘Swifts Project’ of the Cádiz Natural History Society (SGHN). One issue of major concern, with Spanish summer temperatures increasingly exceeding 45°C, is that the nesting cavities become so hot (far hotter than the outside temperatures) that the nestlings eject themselves before they have fledged to escape the heat and are found on the ground below. David A Pope, Fundraising Officer for the Andalucía Bird Society, describes them in a previous issue of the journal as: ‘…small helpless grey fluffy jets, with their swept wings doubled, some dying and some barely alive.’ He explains: ‘Climate change means that summer is now arriving up to forty days earlier. Under normal circumstances swift young would fledge in mid-July when the chicks would be able to fly. Thousands were caught out by the heatwave and didn’t have time.’ In 2022, 335 swifts entered the care of the SGHN, of which 295 were successfully released.

And then, I find more about the wider picture of support for swifts in Spain. The source for this is a link in, of all places,  the Sheffield Swift Rescue Facebook page. It’s great to see such connections between swift supporters in different parts of the world. It transpires that members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) and partners from SOS Vencejos (Save Our Swifts in Spain; the Spanish for swift is vencejo) were particularly busy in the summer of 2023, fighting against 14 large scale renovation and/or demolition projects which threatened to destroy or block off established swift colonies and house martin nests. These included the refurbishment of a medieval tower in Cáceres, a military barracks in Ceuta and several warehouses in Málaga. As a result of interventions with the relevant authorities, nesting colonies in ten locations were saved, amounting to several hundred nest sites. Where there was no choice but to carry out the works,  promises were made that compensatory measures would be put into place.

However, apart from threats to old buildings, as mentioned above, active nest sites are also being baked in the fires of climate change. The 300 or so swifts rescued by the SGHN were only a small part of the Spain-wide story. More than 50 licensed volunteers in rescue stations across the country rehabilitated and released nearly 3,000 such birds. 90% of these were swifts, but they also included swallows, house martins, sparrows and blackbirds.

Sarah Ball, a friend mentioned earlier with a house in the south of France, writes: ‘It was interesting to learn that pre-fledglings eject from overheated nest sites because we found one a few summers ago on the edge of the fountain by the church in Nébias. If the nest was on the south side of the church tower it would have been fearsomely hot!  A friend took it back to our garden, placed it in the shade and was even able to persuade it to drink a little water. She wanted to take it to a vet in Belcaire but we were worried that even if it survived translocation it would be separated from its parents so in the end we put it back where we found it and hoped it would find the wherewithal to fly or that its parents would know better than us what to do.’

These efforts are drops in the ocean in the face of society’s ongoing assault on nature by governments under pressure from multinational businesses and the apparent lack of awareness of so much of the population. Henry Porter captures the situation with chilling simplicity in a quote I included earlier in this piece: he describes us as living in an ‘epoch of casual extermination’. But it’s good to know that many people are out there doing their best and kicking against what seems to be the unstoppable juggernaut of destruction. If we don’t have hope, what do we have?

In the Country Diary piece about swifts which I mentioned near the start of this chapter, Lev Parikian throws out the question: ‘How unthinkable would our summers be without them?’ Peter Sloan asks: ‘How is it possible that we have allowed swifts to become near threatened? It’s another indicator that humanity is sleepwalking towards disaster.’ Michael McCarthy, speaking not just about swifts, doesn’t mince his words: ‘In my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born (1947), in this great and merciless thinning, my own country has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet.’ Charles Foster takes the long view, so I’ll let him have the last word: ‘There’s lots of gloom about the future of swifts. I suspect they have a brighter future than us. When Homo sapiens has gone there will be lots of ideal swift holes in the decaying buildings we’ll leave behind.’

Author: Kevin Borman
Sorbas, Almería, Spain

Request
: I am happy to receive any comments or feedback via email: kevindborman@gmail.com

Photos: Antonio Benitez Paz and Tommy Finlayson

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

Leave a Reply