Sunday 27 March 2011

How to make a nest concave out of Modroc

Contributed by Dick:

We have been casting around for a method, suitable for children, of making nest concaves. The answer could well be Modroc - plaster of Paris bandage: it is cheap, simple and quick, and the resulting concave looks ideal for Swifts.
All you need is a suitable plastic food container, something to make the concave impression (e.g. bluetack, plasticine, papier maché or Modroc), Clingfilm and water. We used a Tesco's finest vegetable curry bowl 120mm in diameter. The concave former should look like an inverted saucer 9cm diameter by 15-20mm high and should be wrapped in Clingfilm to stop the Modroc sticking.

Friday 18 March 2011

Cambridge City Council Swift Tower

Contributed by Guy Belcher, Nature Conservation Projects Officer for Cambridge City Council.

In the UK, housing developers make contributions to a fund, known as Section 106 funds, for the purposes of financing urban art.  Cambridge City Council came up with the brilliant idea of making an allocation to build a Swift Tower on Logan's Meadow Nature Reserve (Pye Fen) which would be not only an attractive piece of static urban art, but also a dynamic piece of living kinetic art as the Swifts display in the summer with their spectacular screaming flypasts. Andrew Merritt, an upcoming young London artist was commissioned to produce a range of designs, one of which, inspired by the African sun, was chosen by a committee of local councillors and Swift experts Jake Allsop and Dick Newell.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Swift Nest Boxes in Church Belfries

Update: the text of this was updated in October 2012 and again in March 2018

Contributed by Dick Newell

St Mary the Virgin, St Neots
It is becoming a popular idea to place nest-boxes behind the louvres in church belfries. Many churches have lost their Swifts under the eaves as a result of roof renovations, so it is a good idea to try to get them back.

The pre-requisites for embarking on a project like this are a team with energy, enthusiasm and stamina, mains power near the belfry, as well as a sympathetic vicar, bell captain, church wardens and parochial church council. In making your case, you can say that Swifts are declining at 3-4% per annum, they are amber listed 'Endangered' and they make a fantastic show in the summer screaming around the church tower and, unlike some species that nest in buildings, they make little or no mess. It should be regarded as a 2 or 3 year project - and that is just to get the Swifts started. You can read elsewhere on this blog about CD playing, concave nest platforms and ideal nest-box sizes.

A common question is whether Swifts are negatively affected by the sound of church bells. As far as we know, the answer is no. There are many examples of Swifts nesting successfully within a few feet of bells that are regularly rung. In Haddenham Church, a Tawny Owl nested successfully, for several years, within a few feet of the bells.

Our experience has been with making tailor-made box-shaped cabinets, containing multiple nest chambers. Typically, the nest chambers are ~350mm long by ~200mm wide with a height determined by the spacing between the louvres. The entrance should be 65-75mm wide x 30 28mm positioned near the floor of the nest chamber and towards one end. Entrances can be anywhere in the gaps between louvres.

Boxes destined for St Mary's Ely
In larger cabinets, with many entrances, it may be a good idea to 'randomize' the position of the entrances at the left and right hand ends of the box. A Swift needs to be able to easily recognise an entrance the second and subsequent times that it looks for it. It is also necessary to treat the front of the box with wood preservative/sealant, using a dark colour so that the boxes appear invisible behind the louvres.
Boxes installed in St Mary's, Ely
[Update 2014 - at least 30 boxes occupied by Swifts]
[Update 2016 - estimated 55 boxes occupied]

Many louvres are covered with anti-bird netting. You can either replace the whole area of the netting with the front of the box, but it is often easier to make a hole in the netting, larger than the entrance in the box, by cutting the sides and the top of a rectangle with wire cutters, then bend the wire inwards and downwards.

Louvres are typically supported in a wooden frame, with two substantial vertical side members. The width of the box can overlap these members, so that, with the back off, the box can be screwed securely to them. But first ensure that the louvres and frame themselves are secure.

It is prudent to start with a modest installation of boxes to see if you can get the Swifts started, then follow up with a more ambitious installation in later years.

Swifts seem to have a tendency to go for the top and bottom louvres, so boxes behind the top two or bottom 2 louvre openings, say, is a sensible way to start.

12 boxes installed in St Mary the Virgin, St Neots.
Here, the tops of the louvres were out of reach
[Update 2014 - 9 boxes were occupied by Swifts]
The direction in which the louvres face is not an issue, as, even on a south facing aspect, the boxes are unlikely to get overheated

Access for maintenance can either be carried out after the end of the breeding season by removing the whole back, or simple access doors, secured by a single bolt through the top can be built which can be rotated to open. Disturbance earlier in the season will likely cause the birds to desert.

This has summarised much of our experience, and Swifts certainly take to this arrangement of boxes. However, there are other successful arrangements, including boxes placed behind one louvre spacing, with a bottom entrance accessed through the louvre spacing below.

For examples of details of church projects and other stuff about Swifts and churches see here

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Milton Road Primary School

Update 30/05/2012: The breeding pair from 2011 returned late on or about 25th May. Also all 4 of the original boxes seem to be occupied this year. This is brilliant progress.

Update 2014: All 6 boxes are occupied this year. An extra camera has been added, and pictures have been broadcast online.

Contributed by Dick Newell, Photos Helen Hodgson

The school entrance
This is the story of a Swift project at a primary school in Cambridge, UK in 2010. The school was interested in doing a biodiversity project and so approached Guy Belcher, Nature Conservation Projects Officer for Cambridge City Council.

The school quadrangle with 4 nest-boxes installed
Guy involved Cambridge Swift enthusiasts which resulted in the installation of 4 Swift nest boxes.
The location chosen was a south-facing gable, and so the boxes were designed to minimise the amount of sun falling on them. It is important that the nest boxes do not get overheated.
Gluing feathers to a nest concave
The children were given a Powerpoint presentation about Swifts, the problems that they face and what can be done to help them. A team of 6 children were chosen who prepared four nesting concaves by coating them with feathers. Swifts prefer to find a ready made nest when they arrive in a new nesting place, they are more likely to breed.

Temperature data logging
They also ran a temperature monitoring project with a max/min thermometer placed in one of the boxes. This confirmed that the temperature inside the boxes remained within acceptable limits. With the help of the school caretaker, Julian Blakeman, they played Swift calls throughout the summer. Swifts are slow to find new nesting places, unless they are given a clue to a suitable location, such as Swifts already calling.
Feathers added by Swifts to feathers glued by children
The happy result of this project was one pair of Swifts occupying the left most box. If you look closely at the nest that they made, they added pieces of grass, seed heads, crow feathers and a lot more pigeon feathers to the feathers originally glued to the nest platform by the children.
It is now the intention to place a webcam in this nest box for 2011. Further projects will be undertaken by the children including feathering more nest concaves for the Cambridge City Swift Tower and making Swift mobiles.
If you would like more information on this project then contact

Article in Cambridge News 20/7/2011
click image to enlarge

Postscript 2011:

In 2011, the pair of Swifts that occupied one of the boxes in 2010 returned to breed. Fortunately, we had installed a CCTV camera, so the children could see the nesting Swifts on a TV screen in their library. After more CD playing, Swifts were seen entering all 4 boxes. We ran another workshop where all of the children made Swift mobiles, and we also added 2 more nest-boxes bringing the total to 6. The project featured in the local newspaper, the Cambridge News, in July.


Thursday 3 March 2011

Why play the Swift CD?

Posted by: Dick Newell
Swifts in a frenzy, attracted to calls
played through a single speaker
While you can agonise over box sizes, entrance shapes, surface textures, directions, heights and concaves, all of these only have a marginal effect on success or failure in attracting Swifts into a nest box. The nearest thing to a 'silver bullet' is playing a CD of Swifts screaming, typically a duet of two Swifts calling 'sree-ree' to each other. When asked the question of how and when to play the calls, the simple answer is as loud and as long as possible, subject to not annoying anyone. There is an opinion that early morning and evening is best, but any time of day can be effective. It is also best to position the speakers as near to the boxes as possible, some even say in the boxes, but somewhere below the boxes in a window, or on the ground also works.

We know of cases of people getting Swifts into a box within 30 seconds of starting to play the CD; we also know of cases of people playing the CD for 5 years without success, but this is unusual and we suspect that the CD has not been played sufficiently consistently throughoutt the season. In our projects in 2010, in 5 cases where we know that the CD playing was well organised and consistently carried out throughout the season, 4 of these succeeded in acquiring new occupants.

Switching CD players on and off is a tedious chore, but this can be made easier by using a remote infrared switch so that, while sitting in the garden with a glass of wine, you can switch the CD on, when the Swifts come by, without getting out of your chair. However, it is well worthwhile investing some effort in setting up an automated system, driven by a timer. The simplest way to do this is to plug your CD player power supply directly into the mains, then plug the speaker power supply into a timer. Set the CD player to repeat, so it plays 24 hours a day, but the sound emerges from the speakers only when the timer says so. Now, if your CD player is playing for 6 weeks continuously, it tends to thrash the player, so maybe an MP3 player would be preferable.

Alternatively, plug the CD player into the same timer, by using an extension with two sockets, and, hold the play button down with a clamp, rubber band, clothes peg or whatever comes to mind. On some CD players (e.g. Sony Discman), they will start and stop playing as the power is switched on and off. Now, you do this at your own risk, as you would be using the equipment in an unauthorised way, but we are talking about a 4.5 volt system here, which would be hard pressed to cause a fire.
Some ghetto blasters also behave in this way if the play button is held down.

An extreme CD exponent is Brian Cahalane in Crumlin, Northern Ireland. Brian plays his CD from dawn until dusk, from the end of April to early August, through multiple speakers and as loud as possible. The result: he quickly acquired a colony of 22 pairs of breeding Swifts, and many more clambering to get into his boxes.

Now, one doesn't need to go to these extremes, but playing the CD from about the 3rd week of May, when prospecting non-breeders arrive, until the second week of July, every day for at least 2 hours a day will give a better than 50% chance of success (We don't have enough hard statistics to defend this claim).

If your nest-boxes are replacements for nesting places that have been destroyed, then start playing at the beginning of May to show the displaced birds where there are new nesting places.

You can buy a CD from Swift Conservation or Jacobi Jayne

You can also download Swift calls from the Dutch Swift Association
It is suggested that you use the .wav versions for CD players and the MP3 versions for MP3 players:

POSTSCRIPT 30 Nov 2012: See our latest idea for attraction call playing: the Cheng Sheng player amplifier.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

A swift chick takes to the air for the first time.

Contributed by Mark Smyth

Photo © Arie Ouwerkerk
On May 16th 2010 two swifts arrived back from migration to take up residence in a nest box on the gable of a house, that they used for the first time in 2009. For nine months they have flown non stop between N Ireland and somewhere in southern Africa. Where they have been and what they have seen no-one knows but for sure they have flown over towns, lakes, seas, mountains, deserts and rain forests.
Two eggs were laid on the 28th and 30th of May and 19 days later they hatched. The adults were extremely busy coming back to the nest every 20 minutes with hundreds of insects in a moist ball under the tongue.