How to help Swifts in the East

Find out where to spot a colony of swifts this summer. Plus top tips on how to install a swift box in your home. 

It’s summer time and you are wondering what you might do over the weekend? If the weather looks good, an air show at Duxford might be an option. Watch those wonderful men in their flying machines, and who knows, the Red Arrows might put in an appearance, with their stunning displays and dare devil aerial manoeuvres. 

Or, you could go to watch an air show of a different sort, but just as stunning. What’s more, it is free! Why not visit a swift colony and watch these aerial masters thrill you on a warm summer’s evening? Swifts just love to show off as they scream around the rooftops. No one knows why they do it, the best explanation may be that they are just having fun – or they do it to entertain us!

Right now, our swifts are in Central and Southern Africa, but they will be back in the UK for three months as of May.


Swifts are in trouble

Although swifts are in trouble in this country, they are declining at about five per cent per annum, efforts to reverse the decline have resulted in some substantial colonies, particularly in some churches in our region. With the permission of local parish church councils, enthusiasts have installed nest boxes for swifts behind the louvres in a number of belfries. Several colonies in churches have grown to over 20 pairs and a few over 30 pairs. So, in June and July, why not visit one of these colonies?

Enjoy swifts in Ely

In Ely, there is a thriving colony in St Mary’s church, right next to the Cathedral. Why not go for a meal in the Fire Engine House, right next door to St Mary’s, then either before or after your meal go and enjoy the spectacle. Just down the road from St Mary’s there is Ely Maltings, where re-roofing a number of years ago forced the swifts out. There are now 36 nest boxes, out of sight, under the eaves occupied by 14 pairs of swifts this summer. Enjoy a free show before or after your meal in the Riverside Bar & Kitchen.

Swifts in other places

St Mary’s Ely is just one church with a vibrant swift colony, there are also substantial colonies in the belfries of All Saints’ Worlington, St John’s Bury St Edmunds, St Mary the Virgin in St Neots, All Saints’ Landbeach and St Vigor’s Fulbourn. 

Fulbourn; Swift Central

Originally, the houses in Haggis Gap, Fulbourn housed about 70 pairs of swifts. When these houses were replaced by ‘The Swifts’ housing estate, the developers included nearly 300 nest boxes for swifts. Today there are over a 100 pairs of swifts and quite a few house sparrows and house martins living in these nest boxes.

The Cambridge Swift Tower

The Cambridge Swift Tower on Logan’s Meadow opposite the Cambridge Museum of Technology on Riverside is also worth a visit. Although quite a small colony, you don’t have to wait long before seeing anything between three and a dozen swifts charging around the tower. 

You can watch swifts at any time of day, but warm summer evenings in June and July are often the best.

What can you do?

If we are to continue to enjoy these wonderful birds, we must do something to stop their decline. There may be more than one factor giving them problems, but loss of nest sites and fewer insects are almost certainly two of them. Solving the insect problem is difficult, but at some stage will be of paramount importance, if we humans as a species are to survive. Solutions to the nest site problem are easier and something that individual householders can play a part.

Why not put nest boxes on your own house? An ideal project over the winter ready for next May when the swifts return. Not just one nest box, but two or more as swifts like company. John Stimpson of Wilburton, in recent years, has manufactured over 20,000 swift boxes for people to put on their own houses.

Developers could help too

However, the problem could be solved if developers acted according to the recommendations of the Royal Institute of British Architects by installing one roost or nest site per residential unit. The government wishes to build 300,000 dwellings per year for the foreseeable future. Making a big difference for swifts should be easy.

There are now swift bricks on the market which add minimal cost to a building, minimal difficulty for the bricklayer, all it needs is for planners to impose conditions on developers, for the developers to install them and for monitoring to be carried out to ensure that it is done.

Research has shown that house owners welcome swift nest boxes in their dwellings with a tiny minority having an adverse view.

For information on swifts see

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