By Charlotte Owen
The sound of screaming isn’t usually something to look forward to but when it comes to swifts, the British summer just wouldn’t be complete without it. These remarkable little birds are only with us for a few short months every year, usually arriving in May and staying just long enough to rear a family before heading back to Africa in August. The joyous screaming of a party of swifts as they scythe through the air and swoop over the rooftops is always eagerly anticipated and first heard with a sense of relief – they’ve made it, they’re back.
Their yearly migration of 14,000 miles is one of the longest in the world but their exact routes remained a mystery until fairly recently, when it became possible to tag and track individual birds. This revealed some truly amazing feats, with one swift travelling more than 3,000 miles in just five days to complete a non-stop flight over the Sahara and into Europe with apparent ease. These birds are so at home in the air that they rarely ever land – they can eat, drink, mate and even sleep on the wing and will only come down to earth for the necessity of nesting.
Swifts return to the same nest sites each year, making use of church towers, barns and older buildings to nest under the roof tiles or in gaps under the eaves. This year’s juveniles will soon be making their first flights and starting to scout for nest sites of their own, ready for their eventual return in future years. But suitable sites can be in short supply – they are lost to renovations and repairs as buildings are re-roofed and soffits replaced, while new-builds rarely offer the required nooks and crannies – and this could spell disaster for the British swift population, whose numbers plummeted by more than 50% between 1995 and 2015. By encouraging everyone to welcome swifts, we can log and protect existing colonies and boost their nesting opportunities by putting up nest boxes and promoting the use of ‘swift bricks’ in new-builds. These relatively simple measures will help keep swifts screaming through our skies for years to come.