Change Alley

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Swifts Locally Extinct

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Photo © Jorge Sanz

Every summer here in the People’s Republic of Suburbia, we’ve grown used to being entertained by the aerobatic antics of flights of swifts who’ve made the long journey from Central and Southern Africa to breed. London’s Swifts reported the first London arrivals on May 2nd, but here in Bromley the skies are empty and silent, so I guess for the first time in over twenty years we’ll be having a swift-free summer.

It’s been well-known for years that the swift is in trouble in its traditional breeding areas. Between 1994 and 2006 breeding numbers in South East England halved. Since Roman times, swifts have nested here in man-made buildings. Originally cave, tree-hole and cliff nesters, they switched their nesting to high man-made structures, under tiles, in the eaves, in lofts, spires and towers.

Swifts nest almost exclusively in pre-1944 buildings. While 10% of homes built before 1919 can house swifts, the figure for inter-war housing is 7%, and for post-1944 housing only 1.4%. This is because modern buildings deny swifts access to breed, as do refurbished or re-roofed older buildings when their eaves are obstructed or sealed.

The London’s Swifts site is full of information on things that can be done to help the swift, such as creating internal nesting spaces or fitting external nest boxes. I’ve had this on my list of things to do for ages, but it kept getting swept under the back burner. Now the swifts are a no-show, and I feel a bit guilty and sad to be honest. Maybe if I’d stuck a few boxes up under the eaves….

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up so much. Perhaps something happened that was completely outside my influence. Perhaps their flight path took them over a pack of gun-happy Mediterranean hunters. Perhaps climate change has led them to fly a bit further north to a cooler spot. Perhaps they had a better offer, and they’re happily holed up in a Croydon office block. All I know for sure is that their swooping, whooping circus act didn’t turn up this year, and our suburban environment is poorer as a result.

Anyone reading this who’s planning refurbishment work on their house this summer, PLEASE visit this page at the London’s Swifts site for advice on how swifts can be helped.


Written by Pete Smith

May 25, 2008 at 11:35 am

One Response

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  1. Don’t feel bad Pete. We all have things on our to-do lists that get left till it’s too late.

    Thanks for the info anyway. Much as I like to think I keep up with environmental affairs, I was unaware of this. I wonder what makes them colonise in urban areas and choose to nest in concrete rather than treetops or cliffs.

    You’re right, we just don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. Can you imagine a world without the birdsong? We might not always be aware of their singing but it would be utterly dull without it.


    May 26, 2008 at 1:51 pm

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