Look skywards for swifts back from Africa

Photo credit: Julian Thomas, North East Norfolk Bird Club

Swifts are back for the summer and Aylsham Swift Group is helping these extraordinary birds

Our special swifts are back from Africa, heralding summer and the time we can enjoy their short stay. Swifts have travelled from central Africa, crossing the Sahara and navigating storms to reunite with lifelong partners. Swifts tagged in Eastern England travelled an astonishing 14,000 miles after leaving the UK in the summer of 2010 and arriving back the following spring. You may have seen swifts already this year, skimming rooftops in joyful ‘screaming parties’ or soaring above our town.   

Swifts spend most of their lives airborne, landing only to nest and raise their chicks. After their epic flight home, swifts look for their nest site, but as buildings and roofs are renovated and gaps sealed up, exhausted birds find their nest gone. In their confusion, some birds suffer injuries from repeatedly trying to access their old nest site.
You may be lucky enough to have swifts nesting under your roof tiles or in the eaves. They cause no damage and leave little trace of their presence, so you may not even be aware. To raise their chicks, swifts travel to the best places to find insects, often above woodlands and waterways, returning to the nest with a ball of insects bound with saliva. Unlike songbirds constantly back and forth, swifts return less frequently – blink and you’ll miss them!
Since 1995, the UK has lost 53% of its swifts, and we are seeing fewer swifts locally too. Dick Newell, founder of Action for Swifts, believes the loss of nest sites is causing the steep decline in swifts in the UK. The RSPB says the lack of food is also implicated. Swifts rely on airborne insects and spiders, catching up to 20,000 insects daily to feed their chicks, but we don’t yet know the full impact of insecticides and the loss of insect habitats in the countryside and our gardens.

Inspired by Norwich Swift Network and Save Our Suffolk Swifts, Pat Grocott set up Aylsham Swift Group (ASG) to secure more nest sites locally. We give advice on external swift nest boxes (to buy or make and where to place them), and internal swift bricks for new and existing buildings. If you’re repairing or renovating your roof, consider asking your roofer not to install bird guards (also known as eaves combs), which block access under the pantiles and prevent swifts from entering their nests. We can also advise on how to adapt soffits to make nesting spaces for swifts without allowing access to your loft.

Swifts will soon have accommodation with the best views in Aylsham too. A suite of secure nest boxes will be provided in the church belfry in a collaboration between Aylsham Parish Church, Aylsham Swift Group, Norwich Swift Network, C T Baker Builders Merchants and local carpenters Carey Whiteman and Ken Seaman.

Aylsham Swift Group keeps a list of local sightings, so let us know where you see low-flying screamers or swifts entering tiles, eaves or nest boxes. If you find a swift on the ground, it’s likely to be an adult injured or exhausted, or a young swift that has left the nest too early, often due to extreme heat. Unlike songbirds, which are cared for by parents after fledging, a grounded swift needs urgent help. Gently pick up the bird and place them in a box lined with soft material – a shoebox is ideal or cover a see-through box to keep the swift calm. Contact ASG for details of the nearest specialist swift carers.

Follow us on Facebook at Aylsham Swift Group or Twitter @AylshamSwifts. If you would like to support the Aylsham Parish Church belfry project, our fundraising page is www.gofundme.com/f/aylsham-parish-church-give-swifts-a-home.

Article first published in Just Aylsham, June 2023.