Sunday 22 December 2013

Fulbourn internal nest box design

As the provision of internal nest boxes on the 'Swifts' estate in Fulbourn has proved so successful, we thought it worthwhile to document in detail how it was done. 

Assembly of cavity panel, entrance pipe and nest box
Exploded view
Holes with pipes inserted
Cavity Panels added
Internal box, made of marine plywood
Entrance pipes through insulation, before brickwork

We have described here the success of internal nest boxes in Fulbourn, which seem to be greatly preferred by Swifts to external nestboxes:

In 2013, Swifts used 66 out of 139 internal nest boxes, but only 9 out of 88 external nest boxes. The internal boxes were custom made out of marine plywood, the external boxes were Schwegler 1MF's

All of the internal boxes are placed in roof spaces (attics) above the level of any living quarters. So nice and high for the Swifts and out of the way of humans. Typically, entrances are provided through a gable end.

A 4 inch core drill was used to drill a hole through the brickwork and insulation. In these houses there was no cavity, just a thick layer of insulation inside the brickwork. A 4 inch pipe provided a route from the entrance cavity panel to the nest box.

Why is Fulbourn so successful?
70 pairs of Swifts were displaced from their old nest sites, so there was a large surplus of established birds looking for somewhere to breed. This shows that, contrary to advice sometimes given, it is well worth providing replacement nest sites, even if you cannot put them close to the old nesting places.

The difference between the internal and external nest boxes is that the entrances face in different directions - maybe it was easier for these birds, desperate to find somewhere to breed, to spot the horizontally-facing entrances of the internal boxes first.

Starlings occupied many of the Schwegler 1MF's, this could have deterred the Swifts from using these boxes.

Perhaps Swifts particularly like to have a certain distance between the entrance and the nesting place, provided by the 4 inch pipe.

There was a limited amount of attraction call playing, but in this case, it was probably a minor factor.

What might one do differently
It may be relevant to ask what one might do differently, not that it is necessary to do anything differently - as it works very well.

The inside of the pipe was roughened to give the Swifts a grip. It might be easier to use a small amount of cement mortar to give a rough flat path.

The entrance hole is placed in the centre of the box. Swifts may prefer it off centre, nearer one end.

The boxes are quite large, with a floor area 400-500mm x 140mm. 300-400mm x 175mm might be better proportioned.

The pictures, left, should be self explanatory - click any one to see enlarged versions of all of them.

Thanks are due to Rob Mungovan of South Cambs District Council who was the driving force behind this project and also for the use of his pictures.


Saturday 14 December 2013

Swifts in the Maiden Tower

The Maiden Tower, Baku
Here is a heartening story from Azerbaijan. In the capital, Baku, an historic local landmark known as the Maiden's Tower has been home to swifts for many years. Holes in its crumbling walls have provided nestplaces for about 250 Swifts for the past 30 or 40 years.

The tower is now being repaired in order to combat a hundred years of weather damage. But the repair, when completed, will leave only about 40 holes usable by the Swifts.

Fortunately, a project is underway to install additional specially-designed Swift nestboxes on nearby local buildings to compensate for the loss. This work is being carried out on the initiative of the State Historical-Architectural Reserve of Azerbaijan, whose Deputy Director, Samir Nuriyev, is making a presentation of the Baku Swift Project at our Cambridge InternationalConference in April 2014.

For a fascinating preview, listen to this podcast of an interview with Samir on Irish Radio. Also, for more information, visit, whose Director, Edward Mayer, offered valuable advice to Samir and his team.

New accommodation in nearby building

Friday 13 December 2013

What should you feed a Swift?

Any experienced Swift rehabber will tell you that giving Swifts a diet of catmeat, mealworms and the like will have disastrous consequences. Yet, intuitively, that's what most of us would do if we didn't know better. Well-meaning, but misguided, we reason that the Swift is an insectivorous bird, so it will welcome a substitute meat diet if we haven't got any insects to hand.
So, we know anecdotally that you should avoid certain foods when bringing on a Swift, but now there is scientific evidence to support the assertion. An article appearing in a recent issue of JZAR, the Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research describes the results of an experiment carried out by Enric Fusté and colleagues at the Centre de Recuperació de Fauna Selvatge de Torreferrussa in Catalunya.
The team hand-reared a total of 116 chicks which they divided into four groups, each fed a different diet:
Diets with good results for Swifts:
1. cricket diet, based on house crickets (Acheta domesticus) and wax moth larvae (Galleria mellonella)
2. mealworm diet, based on mealworm larvae (Tenebrio molitor). 

Two “meat” diets were also tried with much worse results:
3. rat mince diet, a specific pathogen-free laboratory rat mince; 
4. kibble diet, a formula based on a high-protein–low-carbohydrate cat food; 
and two “insect” diets: 
All the chicks were given vitamin and other supplements to ensure that they were not put at undue risk.

The results were clear: birds fed on the meat diets (3 and 4) had significantly lower weights than those fed on diets (1 and 2). Additionally, features such as feather growth and feather quality were significantly lower in the meat-fed groups. You can download a pdf file of the complete report here. We are also fortunate that Enric Fusté is giving a talk at our Cambridge International Swift Conference next April.

Monday 2 December 2013

Swift and Positive Change at Premier Inn Exeter

This is a heartening story of how a major hotel chain is providing accommodation for Swifts and other wildlife in its new developments. We thought it worth reblogging their press release in full.

Premier Inn Exeter, Honiton Road, is opening its doors to some very special guests: guests which will travel thousands of miles, battling the elements and crossing oceans before settling down in their comfortable hotel.

The guests I am referring to are Swifts, the small migratory birds with distinctive curved wings often seen in the sky on warm summer evenings. These magnificent birds make the epic journey from Africa twice a year, tracking the warmer climates across the earth; a breeding adult Swift can travel up to 4 million miles in its lifetime, stopping only to breed.

A computer generated image of a new
Premier Inn Hotel in Cambridge
In recent years these wonderful birds have found it increasingly difficult to find nest space on our shores. They are an amber listed species in the UK, meaning the birds are in decline and in need of protection.

Whitbread is always looking for ways in which it can positively impact on the environment, whether it is through saving water or reducing our carbon footprint. So doing our part to help these birds was a challenge we leapt at.

The RSPB has advised Whitbread on the best way to give these birds a safe place to nest. As a result of our joint efforts, Premier Inn Exeter, Honiton Road, now has 21 Swift boxes installed into the fabric of the hotel, recreating the natural space the birds need to reproduce.

Now travellers human and avian can enjoy a well-earned rest after a hard journey. Inspired by our endeavours in Exeter and with the support of the RSPB, we are introducing similar bird boxes to our Exmouth, Central Exeter and Portsmouth schemes, which will be suitable for a range of different species, including House Sparrows and Starlings, whose numbers are also in rapid decline.

Should these trials be successful, and given the size of our new hotel pipeline, the sky really could be the limit for Swifts and other bird species. It’s another example of how we are leading the hospitality industry to be more environmentally friendly.

All credit to Stephen Fitt of the RSPB and Edward Mayer of Swift Conservation who advised Premier Inn.

Friday 22 November 2013

Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project - 2013 report

Last year we hosted Chris Mason's 2012 report. This is an update describing an impressive amount of activity.

Contributed by Chris Mason

Main Aim
Working with volunteers and the Cherwell District Council to:
  • find and protect Swifts’ traditional nest sites;
  • encourage provision of new nest sites;
  • encourage interest in Swifts and awareness of the risks they face.

This year Swifts were found to be nesting
under the eaves of St Etheldreda’s
church, Horley
Summer of 2013
The summer came in two distinct halves. May was so cool that for Swifts to find food must have been very difficult. I had several reports of eggs being ejected from nests and nests being deserted. June was only slightly better, but suddenly towards the end of the first week of July a period of settled warm days began. This was ideal for Swifts feeding young and also brought in good numbers of prospecting birds.

Cherwell District Council
I continue to get great support from Sue Marchand (Cherwell District Council). We meet regularly to discuss topics such as Swifts and new developments in Bicester, links with Housing Associations, Council guidelines for urban biodiversity. We have had great support from her and the Council Ecologist in connection with proposed work/development at ‘Swift’ properties, mapping of Swift records and our links with the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre.

1. Banbury Swift Watch
We have made a start on collecting data about the Swifts in Banbury. We identified 13 buildings with Swift’s nest and several other places where screaming parties were noted. A nest was found at the Banbury Cricket Club pavilion (completed in 1996); a nice record and a reminder that Swifts do find new sites if they are available. All these records have been mapped. We will continue the search in 2014.

2. Bodicote
Reg Tipping has produced a remarkable record of the Swifts’ nest places in Bodicote. He’s recorded nearly 40 buildings they have used there over the years, and the good news is that he saw 33 of them occupied this year. How fortunate to have such a good Swift friend here!

3. Bloxham.
Alison Urwick spent many hours watching Swifts in Bloxham. She found 14 occupied nests and several other ‘hot spots’ – a great piece of work which will be an invaluable record. We plan to have a meeting in the village next spring, show the film and hopefully enlist more help to keep an eye out for other nests.

4. Drayton (nr.Banbury) and Ledwell.
Pete Tuzzio in Drayton and Clive Hill in Ledwell have both established Swift’s nests at their homes from scratch. This summer both had 4 nesting pairs.
Clive has now had 43 Swifts fledge from his boxes since Royston Scroggs inspired him to make provision for Swifts during building work at his home 10 summers ago.
Clive then encouraged Pete to do something similar, and now, apart from successfully persuading Swifts to share his house, many customers at a certain barbers in Banbury learn a lot about Swifts whilst having their hair cut!

6. Combe
Here is another extraordinary story from Richard in Combe. One of his many nesting pairs (these were first time breeders) laid 2 eggs. Richard knew pretty well which day they would hatch. Incubation is 19 days, give or take a day. So he was looking out for them. One morning he noticed that both eggs had disappeared. He found them on the ground below the nest. One egg was clearly beyond recovery, but the other was only partly broken and still showed signs of life. He took it indoors, and put it in the airing cupboard for an hour, by which time the hatchling was trying to push out of the shell. Having carefully removed the remains of the shell, and because the true parents had obviously given up on their offspring, he decided to pop the chick into another nest where there were 2 nestlings of 2 days old. Happily the adopted parents accepted the addition to their brood and all 3 subsequently fledged successfully. 

Surprisingly this was Richard’s only pair with 3 offspring this year – an indication perhaps of the unfavourable conditions early in the season. In all 15 young birds fledged from the 7 nests which reared young.

One of these recently-installed nest boxes, in
Kings Avenue, Bicester was occupied this year.
7. Nest boxes
At least one of the nest boxes put up by Sanctuary (the Residential Social Landlords of the 1950’s council-built properties along Kings Avenue Bicester) was used by Swifts this summer.

Nest boxes were installed at
St Martin’s church, Bladon
8. Swift Tower
The Banbury Ornithological Society has agreed to install a Swift tower at its reserve in Bicester. Funds have been raised to cover most of the costs. We now have to get planning permission. I am hoping the tower will have been installed for the 2014 season.

Summary of events and action
Evening walks: Somerton, Stratton Audley, Launton, Upper Heyford, Lower Heyford and Steeple Aston
Talks: Leafield Primary School, Bletchingdon and Caring for God’s Acre conference in Benson.
Displays: Banbury (Library and Farmer’s Market), Deddington (Library and Farmer’s Market), Bicester and TVERC Recorders Conference (Oxford).
Nest boxes: installed at Bladon church and sites in Bodicote, Bicester and Islip.

Film Swift Stories: Extracts shown to staff at Cherwell DC. We are planning to show the complete film in Kirtlington on Saturday 8th February next at 7.30 pm.

Care and Rehabilitation
Gillian Westray in Broadway Worcs, cared for a record number of Swifts Swallows and House Martins this summer (136). Of these an amazing 120 were successfully rehabilitated and released. There were surprisingly few from our patch. Father Andrew found a grounded bird near the church in Carterton in May, and later in the season another was taken to Gillian from Charlbury. Both these birds were later successfully released. The care and rehabilitation of these birds is a highly specialised job and taking them to an expert offers them by far the best chance of making their long migration to Africa.

Plans and hopes for 2014:
  1. Build on the survey work begun in Banbury and Bloxham.
  2. Extend the use of mapping of Swifts nest sites.
  3. Complete the installation of the tower in Bicester.
  4. Attend the International Swift Conference in Cambridge (April 8th-10th).
  5. Promote ‘Swift Stories’ as widely as possible.
  6. Continue to campaign for Swift nest provision in appropriate new developments.

Many thanks to all who have recorded Swifts; talked to friends and neighbours, builders, developers and planners; climbed ladders and church towers; made nest boxes; carried out Swift surveys; organised walks and talks; sent me information and otherwise supported the project.

Here is a map of Cherwell:

View Larger Map

Friday 15 November 2013

Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2013

The Fulbourn Swifts housing development is one of the largest and most successful nest-boxing projects in the country

Contributed by John Willis

This was a very successful year for the Fulbourn Swifts Group and the fine weather helped to make it a great year for the local swifts as well.  Increased publicity enabled us to recruit new members for the survey and to significantly raise awareness about swifts in the village.  Our main focus was again on surveying swifts on the Swifts housing development, which is approaching completion, but also we were able to monitor the small colony located at St Vigor’s Church. In June a BBC crew filmed the survey team in action for an item on swifts in the regional television programme ‘Urban Jungle’.

The survey team pictured in front of the Fulbourn Life Wall
On the Swifts Development, an estate of 1960s system built houses, home to a large colony of swifts, has been demolished to be replaced by new homes with internal and external swift nest boxes. 

At the start of the swift season the third part (Phase 2a) of the Development had been completed and building work had commenced on the fourth and final part. One original block of five houses will remain after the completion of the redevelopment and these still provide nest sites for swifts. [You can read background information in Fulbourn Community Swift Survey 2012 and Swifts in Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire.]

In March we mounted a display at Fulbourn Community Market, followed by publishing an item in the Parish Council Newsletter and by distributing a flyer to all homes on the Swifts Development. The latter was particularly successful as we recruited several local residents, who participated in the survey, and during the season others telephoned or sent e-mails to report observations made from their own homes.

We met on site for the survey every Wednesday evening from the beginning of May to late August, but individuals made observations on many other evenings during the summer. There were usually between 5 and 10 observers, but numbers peaked at 17 to coincide with the presence of the BBC film crew!

Swifts moved into nest boxes on these newly completed houses’
Our first two swifts of the season were seen at the survey on 1 May and due to the cool weather the numbers were slow to pick up with double figures not being recorded until mid-month. 

The numbers flying overhead varied throughout June depending on the weather with a maximum of 30 being observed mid-month. Flying numbers improved significantly during the warm weather of July, presumably with a large influx of prospecting young birds.  

Peak numbers of 50+ were seen around mid-month with low level screaming parties of up to 20 birds providing a wonderful spectacle. In the first few days of August there were still around 30 birds flying overhead, but numbers dropped well into single figures within a week. The last low level screaming party was observed on 7 August. However, swifts were still feeding young in at least five nests up to mid-month and were still active at two sites on 21 August. The last swift of the season was seen on 28 August entering a nest site in a block of old houses, which is due for demolition.

At the start of the season there were 227 swift nest boxes on site – 139 internal and 88 external – and it was a significant challenge for us to successfully monitor all of these, as is demonstrated by our observation on 7 August of an adult swift feeding young in a box where we had not noticed any activity before!

This year, swifts were observed using 66 out of 139 internal nest boxes, 9 out of 88 external nest boxes and 5 sites in the remaining old block – 80 sites in total. We estimate that there were 58 potential breeding pairs – 51 in internal boxes, 3 in external boxes and 4 in the old block. In 2012 we saw 51 locations in use and we estimated that there were 32 breeding pairs, so it appears that 2013 was a great year for Fulbourn swifts and the outlook for the colony looks very bright!

A young swift viewing the Fulbourn streetscape in mid-July
In the hot weather of mid-July we observed several young swifts at nest box entrance holes, and around this time two young swifts were found out of the nest at different locations and were taken to Judith Wakelam, who successfully raised them to fledging. One of these had even survived being picked up by a cat!

Over the last few years swifts have colonised each of the areas of new development in turn usually after a delay of one season for prospecting, but this year a few pairs moved into nest boxes in houses that had been built over the winter.

The major preference was again for the internal boxes although we saw one additional breeding pair using the external Schwegler boxes this year with prospectors in another 6, which is encouraging for next year. We have previously noted the presence of starlings in some Schwegler boxes but we have not observed any direct interaction between starlings and swifts. Last year we reported attempts to make these boxes less attractive to starlings (you can read background information at Fulbourn update) and they successfully nested in at least one of these modified boxes in 2013.

Swifts started using these unusually located boxes this year
Most of the internal boxes in the earlier phases of the new housing development are located high up on the gable ends of either two storey houses or three storey flats and many of these are already occupied by breeding pairs, so it was interesting to observe swifts this year using a set of three boxes located just behind a lamp post on the gable end of a single storey house (see picture). The nest box entrances are around 4.5m above ground level. Young swifts were raised in the left hand box (we heard them up to 21 August) and the middle box was also used by swifts over a period of weeks during which time a sparrow also showed interest! Residents have reported sightings of sparrows regularly using some of the internal swift nest boxes.

This sparrow was visiting a box being used by swifts!
As mentioned above, we monitored the small swift colony at St Vigor’s Church where four nest sites were used for the third year running. Activity around the Churchyard reached a peak in mid-July with some wonderful flying displays of over 20 birds right in the heart of the village. The group flying here are supplemented by birds from the nearby small colony on the Old Manor House, which was not monitored this year.
Over the last two years 30 swift nest boxes have been installed on houses in various areas of the village away from the new housing development and we remain optimistic of recording our first use of any of these in 2014.

The builders are now working well into the last phase of the Swifts Development so by the start of the new swift season there could be up to 50 additional swift boxes available on site for us to monitor. In spring 2014 we intend to survey breeding starlings in the external boxes to increase our understanding of the potential for impact on swifts attempting to breed in them.

We will continue with our publicity within the village to maintain awareness of the project and to ensure that we have good participation in the 2014 survey. If any Fulbourn residents reading this would be interested in putting up a nest box or taking part in the 2014 survey, then please contact us at 

Thursday 31 October 2013

Trumpington Community Orchard Swift Tower

Trumpington Community Orchard is an area of ~0.2 acres which is used to improve biodiversity and habitat for wildlife and plants, maintain a green space within the allotment envelope, grow local food, preserve heritage apple varieties and help combat climate change (we wish them luck with that!). And now they have a Swift Tower!
[See UPDATE 2015:]

Final assembly on the ground
Photo Judith Wakelam
Whereas at Micklemere, we had a large tractor with a fork lift to erect the tower, at Trumpington we had to rely on a simple winch and a lot of brawn. The 8 metre pole probably weighed over 120kg and the boxes on top weighed 32kg. An A-frame was built out of scaffold poles to support the pole after each lift. The combination of a winch and a tug-of-war team pulled the tower up, while 2 teams on each side ensured that it did not veer off to the side.

The tower design is similar to the Micklemere Tower, but the entrances are slightly different. Both of these towers contain 11 nesting places, 7 in the front and 2 on each side. 
The assembled pole and nest-boxes, resting on an A-frame ready for erection. Photo Judith Wakelam

Almost ready for the final lift.
Photo Helen Hodgson

Final checks with a spirit level
Photo Helen Hodgson
All of the nest-boxes contain a nest-concave, coated with feathers by local children. A 1.5 inch tweeter was installed inside 2 of the nest-boxes, 1 in a front-facing box and a second one in a side-facing box. All that remains is to install a car battery, solar panel, SD card player and timer switch next May.

Trumpington is a village on the outskirts of Cambridge City. The inspiration for this project came from Susanna Colaco, chairman of the Orchard Committee. 

The team on the day included Guy Belcher, Clarke Brunt, Juliette Colaco, Rosa Colaco, Susanna Colaco, Helen Hodgson, Bruce Martin, Bill Murrells, Dick Newell, Vida Newell and Judith Wakelam as well as helpers from Cambridge City Council and Cambridge University. 

The front boxes are facing slightly north of west.
Photo Judith Wakelam

Sunday 20 October 2013

A brief history of Swifts at Lyndale Avenue, Bristol

We were sent this story by Mark Glanville, who has persevered with building a successful colony on his house in Bristol. Bristol has been elected Green Capital of Europe 2015 and Mark's colony is an example of what pro-active conservation in the City can achieve.

[Postscript: Mark now has a website]

I have lived in Lyndale Avenue since 1989. It is a 1920’s semi-detached property situated on the outskirts of Bristol approximately 3 miles from the city centre and ¾ mile from the River Avon as the crow flies. The local area has a mixture of both private and council houses surrounded by many parks and open spaces including the famous Clifton Downs.

I have been interested in wildlife in general, and birds in particular, all my life. My own house has a large south-facing garden which I have designed to encourage as much wildlife as possible.

I first became aware that Swifts were nesting in my house in May 2005. Whilst I was painting the front bedroom windows one flew over my head and “disappeared” under a raised roof tile. From that day on my love for these remarkable birds has been immense. 

The original nest boxes
Back in those days, information about Swifts on the internet was very basic indeed, and my first nest box designs were rudimentary to say the least. They looked like long brown shoe-boxes, with a large side entrance. I installed them in a row under the soffit above the garage which gave them only a 3 metre drop. Needless to say they were not successful.

The updated nest-box design
By 2006 I had changed my nest box design, the first of many alterations to come.

I also painted them the same colour as the house (magnolia) to try and blend, purely for aesthetic reasons.  I had also acquired a swift CD which I played almost continuously. My original pair returned to their nest under the roof tiles in late April. Throughout the summer, despite playing the CD on a daily basis, I was unable to attract any newcomers into any of my nest boxes, which now numbered 14.

This routine continued for 2007, 2008 and 2009. As soon as the original pair returned each spring I played the CD as loud and often as I could. This did attract small groups of non-breeders from time to time, but for some unknown reason I couldn’t get them to go anywhere near my boxes.

Nest box cabinet
By May 2010 and after the arrival of my original pair, the design of my boxes had changed once again.
There was now a mixture of all shapes and sizes, each with a ribbed landing strip under the entrance hole. 

It was during June that I had a flash of inspiration.  I was watching a new pair prospecting around one of my drain-pipes and completely ignoring my nest boxes (as they normally did). 

Addition of sections of pipe
These newcomers seemed intent on flying up to and trying to squeeze in behind the drain-pipe where it joins the gutter. They seemed drawn to the darkness. Immediately out came the ladder and I fitted small 80mm sections of black pipe adjacent to each entrance hole on every box.

This worked almost immediately and within a couple of days I had 2 new pairs taking up residence. By the time they left in early August they had both built two perfect small nests. 
In 2011 all 3 pairs returned to breed, they were joined by a pair of non-breeders in June. The previous winter I had installed cameras in all of my boxes, so I was able to record their activities in greater detail in my logs than ever before. I had also removed the small sections of drain-pipe on each box and replaced them by painting the landing strip black, directly beneath each entrance hole.
2-box cabinet with pipe section
This is the design which I have found the most successful and I haven’t changed it since.
In 2012 only 3 out of the 4 breeding pairs returned in May, but again they were joined by another non-breeding pair in June.
In 2013 all 4 breeding pairs returned in May and were unexpectedly joined by another breeding pair in early June making 5 breeding pairs in total. These were joined in July by 2 more non-breeding pairs who took up residency and built their own nests, making it my best year to date with 7 pairs in total (5 breeders, 2 non-breeders - 6 pairs in nest boxes & 1 pair under the roof tiles).
Black pipes replaced with black paint
My only bit of advice to anyone starting out would be to have a little patience. Install the best box design you can (doesn’t matter if it’s homemade or retail). Play the swift CD as loud and as often as possible, and if you are lucky they could take up residence almost immediately. However sometimes though (like me) it might take a little longer, but don’t give up – keep on trying!

Here are some videos:
Swifts in one of my nest boxes in June 2011
Swifts prospecting in July 2013
Mark Glanville