Sunday 25 November 2012

Swifts nesting in House Martin nests

Ulrich Tigges sent us an article in French which was particularly relevant for when one gets into discussions about nest-box sizes. We thought it worthy of a wider audience, so Jake has translated it. 

Summarised from a paper by Willy Raitière and Patricia Audureau

On July 05, 2008, while we were surveying the town of Bouin in search of urban breeding birds, as part of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Brittany, we found two active colonies of House Martins Delichon urbica. One of them had about 10 nests located under the roof of a house in the main street. When counting nests of this colony, we noticed that one of them had very dark primaries visible over the edge of the nest. On closer inspection, we concluded that it was a Common Swift brooding in a House Martin's nest, which was very cramped.

The back of the Swift protrudes from the martin's nest (Boin - Vendee, July 2008). W. Raitière

White faces of 2 chicks are just visible
Aware of the unusual nature of this discovery, Willy decided to go back to the site a week later to verify that it was not just a Swift using the martin's nest for roosting. Upon arrival on the morning of 13 July, he noted that the dark primary feathers were no longer visible; instead, he could make out the head of a young swift, clearly not ready to fledge, as the primaries had still not fully emerged from the sheath. Shortly afterwards, an adult Swift arrived with food, just managing to enter the nest. Thus, a pair of Common Swifts raised a brood of at least two young in a House Martin's nest.

Similar occurrences were recorded at Anton during the nineties (Deliry, pers comm); near Loches in the 1950s, and at and Brétigny-sur-Orge in the early 2000s (Voisin, pers comm); and in the 8th arrondissement of Paris in 2007 (Detalle, pers comm). Beyond our borders, similar cases have also been noted in Moira, County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 2007, Markgröningen, northwest of Stuttgart in Germany in 1987 (Wendt, 1988) and more recently in Mengeringhausen in Hesse in the center of Germany in 2007 and 2008 (Bergmann, 2008). Moreover, in the Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas (1980), the authors note that in river valleys that do not have trees, Swifts have used the nests of both House Martins and, more rarely, Sand Martins Riparia riparia.


Glutz von Blotzheim U. N., Bauer K. M., 1980. Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Wiesbaden, vol. IX : 686p.
Wendt E., 1988. Mauersegler (Apus apus) brütet im Mehlschwalbennest. Ornithologische Jahreshefte für Baden- Württemberg, 04 : 72
Bergmann H.-E., 2008. Mauerseglerbrut im Mehlschwalbennest. Der Falke, 11-08
Raitière, W., & Audureau, P. 2010. Un couple de martinets noirs Apus apus nichant dans un nid d'hirondelle de fenêtre Delichon urbica. Ar Vran, 21(2): 19-20

Saturday 17 November 2012

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project - 2012 Report

We are pleased to host this report from Oxfordshire, which demonstrates just how much can be achieved locally.

Contributed by Chris Mason

Main Aims of the Project: 
1. To identify and protect Swifts nest sites in Cherwell District (though the network is expanding to neighbouring Districts too).
2. To encourage the creation of new Swifts’ nesting places in suitable sites.
3. To encourage local interest in Swifts, including their life history and the risks they face particularly from building work.

At the Kirtlington home of Chris and Ruth Powles who created nest places for Swifts
during recent renovation work. Two young Swifts fledged successfully in 2012
Progress so far: 
Since 2008 we have identified approximately 160 buildings in the District where Swifts nest and more than 20 in towns and villages just outside the District. Some of these buildings contain many nesting pairs. We have more than 30 people actively involved in looking out for their local Swifts and submitting information, and a further 30 or so who support the project in various ways.

Summary of 2012 Events: 
1. Walks.
Evening walks were arranged in Lower Heyford, Upper Heyford, Steeple Aston, Islip, Woodstock, Hook Norton and Bicester. The aims were to interest more people in Swifts and to find new nest sites. The Steeple Aston walk was rained off shortly after we set out. On the other evenings the weather varied between reasonable and, once or twice, perfect. The walks were well-attended with usually 10-15 people turning up. Gill Phillips and Adrian Bletchly also helped with a preliminary survey in Souldern (2 buildings with nests so far), and Naomi Bowen and Kath Randall organised a search in Wigginton (Swifts but no nests).

2. Displays.
These were held at fairs in Kidlington and Bicester, the Farmer’s Market in Deddington and Woodstock Library.

3. Talks:
Talks were given at the British Trust for Ornithology Regional Conference and to the Banbury Ornithological Society (BOS).

4. Churches:
Nest boxes were installed at St Edburg’s Church in Bicester. St. Martin’s Church in Bladon has been measured up for boxes which will be installed before next May. Over the last 18 months I have worked closely with Father Andrew Foster and the architects (including English Heritage) and builders working at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Carterton. This is an important nesting site for Swifts with about 20 pairs in 2011. Essential repair work was carried out on part of the building during the winter of 2011/12. The builders left nest holes in the gable ends and also provided access under tiles. The gable-end holes were well used but we did not see Swifts going in under the tiles (poor weather limited our monitoring visits). We will continue checking next summer.

Cherwell District Council
Sue Marchand and I meet regularly.
1. We hope that provision for Swifts will be included in Council-owned property to be built at the South West Bicester site and also in the new Bicester Town Centre development, both now under construction. Paradigm Housing, one of the Residential Social Landlords at South West Bicester, also plans to include Swift bricks in new homes being built there. Swift bricks are also being included in the new building at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College in Banbury

2. The Council is compiling guidance on the incorporation of features into developments to encourage biodiversity, including bird and bat boxes, which will form part of the Sustainable Buildings in Cherwell Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).

3. The first showing of Swift Stories, the film which has been made to encourage more people to care about Swifts took place at the Council’s Countryside Forum on October 17th. The film will be shown again to planners and other relevant CDC staff in early 2013.

Highlights of 2012: 
1. I attended (not paid for by the project) an International Seminar on Swifts in Berlin in April. Over 70 people from 20 countries attended from as far afield as China, Russia, Turkey and Spain as well as many East European countries. I learnt a lot, met many people and feel we are now linked to a worldwide network of people all working for Swift conservation and with whom we can share ideas and information.

 2. 3 nest boxes have been put up on a building owned by the University in Wellington Square Oxford. David Lack recorded Swifts nesting in the Square in the 1940s and there are still a few pairs there. Now they have some additional options. Nest boxes have also been included in a new extension built for the Thames Valley Police in Kidlington; many thanks to Jocelyne Hughes and Chris Bottrell for these initiatives.

3. Sanctuary (the Residential Social Landlords of flats in King’s Avenue Bicester) put up 6 nest boxes during major repair work. This is the best area for Swifts in the town.

4. Chris and Ruth Powles created nest spaces in the gable ends of their old stone house in Kirtlington. This year they were rewarded when a pair of Swifts used one of the nest holes and successfully raised 2 young. Furthermore, they have a camera on this nest.

5. Swifts have nested under slates on the roof of Julian Barbour’s home in South Newington for at least 50 years. Last winter he asked his builder to raise a few more slates to provide extra spaces for Swifts and even this first summer Swifts have used at least one of these and investigated others.

6. Recently installed nest boxes have been used in both Adderbury and Islip.

Weather 2012: 
We could hardly write a report about Swifts in the summer of 2012, without mentioning the weather. How serious the effects of the wet summer were on the Swift population only time will tell, but it made Swift watching much less rewarding than usual. One illustration of the effects is that this year 16 birds fledged from 10 nests at Richard Woodward’s home in Combe. 3 of the nests failed due to the loss of one or both of the pair, but in each case a new pair had been formed by the end of the season. Amazingly therefore the remaining 7 pairs raised 2.2 young each. In the summer of 2011, 25 birds fledged from 10 nests at this site. The story from other monitored sites was similar and there were many reports of ejected eggs being found. It should be remembered too that some young birds will have fledged in less than ideal condition for their long migration. Two such birds were found grounded in the late summer and taken to Gillian Westray for expert care and rehabilitation, and were later successfully fledged by her.

Plans for 2013: 
1. Organise a town-wide survey of Swifts in Banbury.

2. Expand the project to villages where as yet we have no local Swift friends e.g. by arranging walks, film shows and talks.

3. Continue to urge that provision for Swifts be included in new developments as a matter of course rather than on an ad hoc basis.

My thanks to all who have recorded Swifts; talked to friends and neighbours, builders, developers and planners; climbed ladders and church towers; made nest boxes; been interviewed on film, organised walks; acted as ambulance drivers and otherwise supported the project.

Chris Mason November 2012

Thursday 15 November 2012

The Cheng Sheng player amplifier

[We have now consolidated everything on attraction calls on this page]

Technology advances apace. We have discovered an even better idea for playing attraction calls, the Cheng Sheng 12V Stereo Power Audio Amplifier, with the player and amplifier combined in one box. So it is neater and slightly cheaper than the last ideabut the performance is the same.

Contributed by Dick

As with the original Box of Swifts, all of the electronics is in a single box. All it needs is a 12 volt power supply, and a speaker cable to connect a 1.5 inch car tweeter. The only soldering needed is to attach the tweeter to the speaker cable. Calls, in MP3 format, can be held on an SD card or a USB memory stick. 

Playing times can be controlled with a digital timer switch which can survive power cuts without needing resetting. 

The Cheng Sheng player amp can run off a 12 volt car battery, it consumes between ~0.3 amps and ~0.5 amps, depending on the sound volume (0.5 amps hurts your ears). Useful options are a 12 volt timer and solar panel for battery recharging.

These configurations are easy to put together yourself. You can order the player/amp singly, the speakers in pairs (which could be useful), but cheap power adapters only seem to come 5 at a time.

Although the Cheng Sheng player amp works out of the box, just switch the power on and it starts playing, it does not come with any instructions to explain what the buttons mean, so we have written some here (File>Download for pdf) [these were updated on 2/7/2013].

Websites for the components are: [Note prices and availability may have changed since posting this, so it is worth Googling for alternatives]

Rodney Monteith has brought our attention to the Kinter MA-800 as an alternative to the Cheng Sheng.

Timer Switches
We have tried quite a few 240 volt timer switches. We prefer a digital timer because it can survive loss of power without losing the current time or program settings. However, the majority of them are quite difficult to use because of their arcane user interfaces. Cheaper ones frequently break down and lose their settings, or don't work at all after having them for a short period. Our current favoured timer is the Time Guard TG77 7 day timer. It is simple to program, is reliable, it has an on/off light and is available at a good price from John Lewis in the UK, see here.

Websites for Swift calls in MP3 format are:
Netherlands Swift Protection downloadable calls recorded by Rosanne van Oudheusden. This site has been reorganised, the recommended track numbers now are 1, 10, 13 and 14 (or 14a or 15a)
Set of selected Swift  uploaded by Rick Wortelboer to the files section of SMSWW; requires login to SMSWW. These are some of the same tracks as the previous link, with quiet periods inserted.
Swift Conservation well tried calls on CD and supplied in MP3 format.
Jacobi Jayne good quality calls on CD - need converting to MP3.  Expensive.
It is also worth Googling for Swift calls, we found these:
Latvian swift calls we have not tried these, but they sound OK
More Dutch calls these sound OK too.

12 volt battery driven systems
If mains power is not available, then a 12 volt battery can be used as described on this post

Tools for manipulating sound files
For online format conversion try to convert audio files. is also a good program for performing manipulations on sound files

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Swift weather vane

It can be a long wait for the Swift season to come around, so here is an excellent idea to bridge the 9 month gap when they are not here.

by Dick

Having recently celebrated a big birthday, this was one of my birthday presents. It is one of the nicest presents I have ever received.

It will be interesting to see what the Swifts make of it when they return next May.

Distant shot, and Bill on the chimney (rather him than me!)

Sunday 11 November 2012

Slovak conference highlights problems across Europe for birds and bats in buildings.

This post highlights the growing problem of insulation in buildings and the negative impact on Swifts and bats. Helen Hodgson attended a conference in Slovakia which discussed this issue.

Contributed by Helen

The Slovak Ministry of the Environment and State Nature Conservancy hosted an international conference in Zvolen, central Slovakia, 25-26 October 2012, to discuss the problems faced by Swifts and bats in buildings. The intention was to share experiences and to exchange ideas for solutions to these problems

Zvolen town square
As a result of EU initiatives, the installation of insulation, which poses a serious threat to building-dependent species, increases each year.  The requirement to save energy and to create jobs to stimulate economic growth has driven this increase.

There are EU directives to protect wildlife, but the application, in practice, of protective measures falls far short of what is needed to halt the decline of Swift and bat populations.  This is a common problem across Europe. A great deal depends on the energy and enthusiam of individuals, both volunteers and people in official positions to ensure that planning conditions are met.  In addition, it was agreed that the penalties for infringements to planning laws are insignificant: in too many cases, Swifts and bats are killed or made homeless.

The Regional Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development (BROZ) in partnership with the Slovak Ornithological Society, BirdLife Slovakia and the Slovak Bat Conservation Society have received part EU funding from LIFE+ Nature & Biodiversity Programme, a four year undertaking now in its ninth month.  During these nine months, 4,000 buildings in 100 towns have so far been checked for populations of Swifts and bats. This work involves a great number of people, many of whom are volunteers.  

Seminars for state administrators and people in the construction industry are under way; practical and simple guidelines are being prepared and laws are being reviewed. 

So far, more than 1,000 nest-boxes have been installed and 2000 original nesting possibilities retained after insulation – to compensate for loss of nest sites; these will be monitored.  However, it is felt that more needs to be done to involve the general public via PR and the media, as there is still a lot of ignorance of these issues. 

A further aim of the project is to strengthen cooperation between state institutions, investors, the construction industry and local communities.

This worthwhile conference was well attended by approximately a hundred and fifty delegates from around Europe (8 countries) and the papers presented were interesting and informative. 

There are lessons to be learned all over Europe, as the unintended consequences of policies to conserve energy result in major problems for our urban wildlife.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Recovery of a grounded Swift

The summer of 2012 was challenging for Swifts, many chicks died and some adults had difficulty getting enough food for themselves. This is the story of an underweight adult Swift, which, we hope, had a happy ending. It demonstrates how small an entrance an, admittedly underweight, Swift can pass through.

Contributed by Rodney Monteith

In early July I made one of my regular checks on my local colony. About 15m from the nearest nest lay a grounded swift. Once I had it in my hands I took it to an open area and gave it the opportunity to fly from a height of about 3 meters. No amount of persuasion would get it to take off so I took it with me and put it in a nest box that I had previously modified to play a call CD.

Over the next three days it consumed 45 gm of waxworms and its initial weight of 33gm rose to 35.2gm, it also went from being totally lethargic to being quite lively, so much so that it managed to escape from the nest box.  
Box designed for holding attraction call player,
then used for rehabilitation
The box was the size of typical swift box as can be seen from the photo but since I had been concealing a CD player inside I didn’t actually want any birds to be able to get in so I made the entrance hole smaller than required. 

I positioned the box on its back so that the front became a lid and as it turned out my swift was able to climb up the smooth plywood and squeeze out through the hole at the top. The hole is only  47mm x  23mm so is much smaller that recommended entrance holes so I was surprised when I found the bird huddled in the corner of the room on the floor.

The Swift having escaped!
Having recaptured the escapee I returned it to the box as it was late in the evening and could not risk trying to set it free. The next day its weight had dropped to 32.9gm but it was very lively so I took it to a large open field and it practically struggled free and flew of strongly rapidly gaining height  until it disappeared into the distance alone.

I do not know if the bird was a breeder, non breeder or visitor. Was it grounded because of exhaustion after a fight I do not know.  It did appear to be adult and two of its tail feathers were partially sheathed so this may have had an effect on its activity.

It was also much lighter in weight that I expected, based on what I have read, but it flew off even lighter than when I found it.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2012

The provision of Swift nest boxes in Fulbourn to mitigate the loss of 72 pairs of Swifts in 1960's buildings, scheduled for demolition, is probably one of the largest such projects in the country. It is also headed towards being one of the most successful. In 2012, 157 new nest-boxes were occupied by 27 pairs of Swifts, alongside 5 of the original nest-sites. 

Contributed by John Willis 

The Fulbourn Community Swift Survey was organised by the local swift group, which was formed in 2011. Our focus this year was on the 'Swifts Development' where an estate of 1960s system built houses is being demolished and replaced by a higher density of new homes in a phased programme. These old buildings had become the home for a large colony of swifts and provision is being made for both internal and external swift nest boxes in the new houses. You can read background information in Swifts in Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire and this RSPB case study.

Old houses with stopped up nest sites
where the panel joints meet the roof boards 
It was hoped that our community survey would complement the official survey to be undertaken by Applied Ecology Limited, who have been monitoring the colony since 2009, and help increase awareness of the swifts among the local residents.

We met on site every Wednesday evening from 9 May to 15 August. Individuals made observations on other evenings during the summer, especially when the weather was warm! One of the residents was a regular member of our team and many other local people approached us on survey evenings to ask about the swifts. We often received useful reports of birds using specific boxes and all feedback about the swift project was very positive.

Potential nest sites on several blocks of old houses, which had been used for breeding in 2011 (20+ nests reported by Applied Ecology Ltd), had been sealed with foam prior to the arrival of swifts. However, one remaining block of 5 houses (2 nest sites recorded by Applied Ecology in 2011) will not be affected by re-development, and the nest sites there were available to swifts this year.

With 157 swift boxes already installed on the site it was quite a challenge for us to adequately monitor all areas. The boxes are of two types; internal custom made wooden boxes (111) incorporated in the house timber frames in gable ends, and external Schwegler 1MF double boxes fitted on gable ends in phase 1 and on front/rear elevations in phase 2.

Internal wooden nest boxes are
built into the house timber frames 
The first swifts of the season were seen over the Development on 30 April with a group of up to 12 birds flying over the old buildings at the west end of the site. The numbers steadily increased reaching a peak on 11 May when there were up to 50 birds forming into screaming flocks and moving around rapidly. Numbers flying in the evening fluctuated over the following weeks but there was a distinct increase in activity from 18 June. A spell of milder weather from 17 July heralded a further increase in the level of activity with some great flying displays. Peak numbers were seen on 23 July, a warm evening, with over 50 birds flocking overhead and screaming parties of up to 20. The last large group of 35 was seen over the site on 3 August and after that the numbers steadily declined with the last sighting of the year being a pair of birds flying over the centre of the site on 20 August.

In phase 1 of the building development, which comprises phases 1a and 1b referred to below, 40 out of 63 internal boxes were used at some point in the season by swifts compared to 4 out of 22 external boxes. Of these, 26 internal boxes and 1 external box were used regularly enough during the season for us to suspect nesting activity.

We observed regular use of 15 out of 18 internal boxes in phase 1a, which has been colonised by swifts since 2009, whereas the corresponding figures for phase 1b, which was completed prior to summer 2011 but with no confirmed nesting, were 11 out of 45. The one regularly used external box was also located in phase 1a. It is encouraging that swifts now appear to be colonising the more recent phase 1b and hopefully the numbers there will increase over the next few years.

These unmodified Schwegler 1MF boxes
are very popular with starlings 
The external Schwegler boxes were clearly not favoured by swifts, but possibly this is because so many starlings were already in residence by the time that the swifts arrived.

Prior to installation, we modified the external Schwegler boxes in phase 2 to restrict the entrance size to deter starlings, but we did not observe any birds using them. You can read more about the background to this in Fulbourn Update.

Early in the season a group of swifts were observed flying close to the four internal boxes on a recently completed house in phase 2. Subsequently, site workers reported that they had seen swifts enter boxes nearby. However, despite observation of these locations over the summer on a good number of evenings we never managed to record a swift entering a nest box in that area. There were often swifts overflying this latest phase of the development, so hopefully some of the 72 swift boxes (including both types) already installed have been ‘checked out’ for use in the future.

The one remaining old block of houses was a focus for swift flying activity throughout the summer and we regularly observed birds accessing 5 nesting sites under the boards on the edge of the flat roof and occasional activity was observed at 2 other locations.

Swifts started using internal boxes in the
narrow gaps between some of these new houses 
We do not know whether there was successful nesting and rearing of young at any of the regularly used sites. However, it is encouraging that the number of these sites (32) was similar to the number of nesting places identified in the official 2011 survey undertaken by Applied Ecology Limited, especially given that around 20 nest sites in the old blocks were not available this year and there were big reductions in the number of nest sites used in each of the previous two breeding seasons.

During the summer there was a very positive response and useful input from the residents of the site and we aim to build on this for the 2013 Community Swift Survey.

We would like to thank Rob Mungovan, South Cambridgeshire District Council Ecology Officer, for his support and encouragement.

If any Fulbourn residents reading this would be interested in putting up a nest box or taking part in the 2013 survey, then please contact us at

Sunday 4 November 2012

30 year old Swift!

We were surprised to learn that there is a record of a Swift, ringed near Orléans in France at one year old, on 11th June 1967, that was retrapped 28 years, 11 months and 27 days later. So it just about reached the ripe old age of 30 years. This report appears in the French magazine La Hulotte (the Tawny Owl), Number 90 - La Nuit des Methusalem.

Written by Dick

Page from La Hulotte - click image to enlarge
There is no record of this in the Euring longevity pages, but it is not surprising that a small number of Swifts should achieve this age, given their relatively high annual survival. Indeed we predicted it in our piece How long do Swifts live?

This would established the Common Swift as the longest lived 'small bird', at least in Europe, even longer than its larger relative, the Alpine Swift at 26 years.