Saving swifts in town

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Installing swift nest boxes at the Rye Retreat

For many years, centuries even, Rye has reverberated with the screams of swifts, as they dive and swoop though the town in summer. Their screeching and aerobatics are hard to ignore, as they have been to townsfolk for millennia; but now they are vanishing.

Swift populations have plummeted. More than halved, falling 58% in 23 years. In 2021, they were added to the UK’s list of most endangered birds, the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, an official register delivered by a coalition of government and charitable wildlife bodies including the RSPB, because they are at risk of vanishing from our skies. And like so many things, we are both the cause and the solution.

To reach us they have flown over the Sahara, Morocco, Spain and France to reach the British Isles but will they keep returning?

Nest-place loss from re-building and development, insect food loss from over-use of agricultural insecticides, increasingly severe weather on migration, long-term droughts, the intensification of agricultural and deforestation in their wintering grounds in Africa, all are pushing their populations to the brink.

Swifts have shared our buildings ever since the Romans came to Britain and the deforestation of the British Isles started. That was when swifts moved away from nesting in holes in trees and moved into our buildings. Nearly all now breed in old eaves and gables, they cannot use modern buildings as these exclude them.

Unless we help them now swifts will vanish from the UK, and from the world too.

Swifts have an intriguing lifestyle. Everything except nesting is done on the wing. They eat, drink (scooping raindrops or making low passes over still, open water) mate and sleep on the wing. The average lifetime of a swift is 5.5 years, although birds of 21 years old have been recorded, and during that time it might fly as much as 4 million miles. Swifts also live up to their name, with one individual taking only five days to travel over 3,000 miles from West Africa back to the UK.

The Rye Retreat decided to help. Concerned that swifts might be lost to the town for ever, they have installed five swift boxes on the front of their premises in Cinque Ports Street. With help and advice from Ian Donaldson of Hasting and Rother Swifts, five nest boxes were installed on Sunday, June 13. The location of the boxes is critical if we are to encourage swifts to use the boxes as nesting sites.

We next plan to install an amplifier, which will replicate the swift call and hopefully will encourage the swifts to nest in the boxes. If all goes well, we plan to install video cameras in the swift boxes so staff and clients can follow the progress of the young swifts. We are also grateful to Edward Mayer, a longstanding champion of swifts in Rye, who has provided helpful information and allowed us to use content from the website, www.swift-conservation.org.

We hope this article may encourage others in Rye to set up their own swift boxes.

Above is a photo of Ian Donaldson installing the boxes.

For further information on swifts and how you can help follow these links:

Image Credits: Rye Retreat .

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