Thursday 2 August 2012

Story with a Happy Ending

Contributed by Jake, photos by Judith Wakelam

At the end of June, Bill Murrells and I were called to a site in Ely where a terrace of three cottages was being reroofed. On removing the tiles at the gable end, one of the workmen uncovered a nest with three young nestlings in it, which turned out to be Swifts. As the builders had done the right thing by reporting the nest, we did not wish to force them to delay the work.

Our first idea was to put up a nestbox as close to the original nest site as possible and to transfer nest and nestlings into it.  The chicks had probably not been fed for maybe twenty-four hours, something Swift chicks have evolved to handle. We decided to give it another twenty-four hours to see if the parents would take to the box. Evening and early morning vigils confirmed that the adults were not going into the box. With the benefit of hindsight, this idea may have been a mistake, as mitigation nest-boxes are known to sometimes work before breeding has started, but not afterwards.

One of the chicks on the day it was taken into care
So, I put the three nestlings in my hat and took them to Judith Wakelam, one of our star rehabbers. The nestlings began feeding almost immediately, the runt of the litter being more voracious than the other two, to the extent that eventually the runt became the biggest and heaviest of the trio!

One month later, 3 chicks ready for release
When Judith judged they were ready to be released - flight feathers fully grown, lots of "push up" exercising and the usual restlessness - she took them to the nearest open space, Newmarket Heath, close to the Racecourse, where Bill and I were privileged to assist. The method of release is important: bearing in mind how fledglings normally leave the nest - perching at the entrance or on the edge of the nest and hesitating for ages before finally taking the plunge.

An enchanted Bill Murrells with Swift ready for release
We attempted to reproduce this situation, by holding the bird aloft on the flat or back of one's hand, allowing the Swift time to adjust and to make up its mind to go. It also helps to have the bird facing into the wind to give it lift. It is considered bad practice to "throw" it into the air. Be patient, let the bird determine the pace. Of course, you can rock your hand gently from time to time, which causes the bird to spread its wings to maintain its balance, but no more than that.

Ready steady ......
Eventually the three birds took off. It's a breath-stopping moment when the bird leaves your hand. Will it gain height? Will it plummet to the ground? (It's because of the risk of plummeting that you stage the release in a big open space like Newmarket Heath, so that you can find it easily in the short grass). The first bird released gained height and started to circle around us at some distance. Out of nowhere, another Swift appeared and joined it. Other rehabbers have noticed how, from an apparently empty sky, Swifts will appear to accompany a lone released bird. Amazing.

The second and third fledglings eventually launched themselves into the air, and were also joined by other Swifts, once they had gained height and distance. Mission accomplished.

Lessons of the story:
1. It is a good idea if nesting Swifts (and other species) are found, before renovation work is planned.
2. Respect the builders who were good enough to report the nest they had disturbed. Do everything you can to avoid causing a delay to their work. Only use the law as the very last resort.
3. It's also good PR to keep them informed. We took photographs of the rescued birds, showing how they were progressing, and then reported back that they had been successfully released.
4. Use a competent rehabber. Swifts need specialist treatment, and there aren't many people like Judith with the skill to do the job. If you don't know a rehabber, contact us through or call 01353 740540 for help.
4. If you are launching a bird yourself (eg an adult that was simply grounded or winded), take it to an open space, hold it high on your hand, facing into the wind, and be patient: the bird will go when it's ready.
Also see our advice page: If you find a grounded swift

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