A life in the air
April is a month to marvel at the birds returning to our shores, a true herald of spring. During the month you may witness first Martins, then Swallows and finally Swifts appearing, with the Swifts last to arrive in late April. These Swifts are at the end of a nonstop journey of over 6,000 miles from Africa; they will have been on the wing since they left the U.K. last August as they eat, drink and sleep on the wing, soaring up to 3km high and reaching speeds of 70mph.
Swifts look rather like swallows and martins but are more closely related to hummingbirds. They feed on insects and spiders, often caught high up in the sky. Spiders are known to ‘balloon’ to great heights, they spin a few strands of gossamer web which catches the wind and can take them long distances. Spiders have been found 5km up in the sky and in also in mid-ocean!
Swifts pair for life and return to the same nest site year after year. They tend to nest in colonies – within a hole in a cliff, wall or roof. Tall buildings with more than one story, such as churches and towers, make good nesting sites. Under church eaves is a particular favourite. It can be difficult to know exactly where swifts are nesting as the parents tend to eat the droppings of their young and so there is little or no mess beneath a swift nest and the nest itself is completely out of sight. In addition, they don’t return to feed their young often, so you will not see swifts repeatedly visiting their nests with food, unlike swallows and martins. Look for swifts nipping into holes or swooping in under the eaves, particularly in the evening when they do return to their nests.
Sadly this fantastic bird is in trouble – 58% of our swifts vanished between 1996 and 2018 and lack of nesting sites is contributing to their decline. Many established swift colonies are being lost through building demolition, renovation, improvements in energy efficiency and roof repair. It is possible to do all of these important building works without adversely affecting swifts however. Many communities are helping swifts by fitting nest boxes or swift bricks into and onto buildings with good success. Church towers are ideal places for nesting boxes. Place swift boxes snugly behind the tower louvres, cutting a small hole in any bird netting which gives access into the box, but not into the whole tower. Amazingly the swifts don’t seem to mind the bells! Video footage shows birds jump slightly at the first ring and then settle back down.
Please have a look for swifts in late April and if you see them whizzing around the church and churchyard then why not return a few weeks later and see if you can see where they are nesting. Please let us know what you find, email email@example.com.
All the best, Harriet Carty
Diocesan Churchyard Environmental Advisor, firstname.lastname@example.org,
www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk - individuals and groups in the diocese receive 20% members discount on all CfGA materials. Use the discount code diomem22