By Dick Newell In 2009, there were approximately 5.3 million breeding pairs of House Sparrow Passer domesticus in the UK as well as 1.9 million pairs of Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris (Musgrove et al. 2013). These two species largely depend upon human settlements for nesting sites and both are red-listed as birds of serious conservation concern. On the other hand, the Common Swift Apus apus, virtually exclusively dependent upon human dwellings for its nest sites, and with an official population estimate of 87,000 pairs, is amber-listed - a species of medium conservation concern. Red- and amber-listing Red- and amber-listing are based, among other things, upon trends measured by the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). According to the BBS, House Sparrows declined steadily from 1994 until about 2008, but then climbed back up to roughly 1994 levels by 2012. Starlings, on the other hand, have suffered a continuous decline all the way from 1994 to 2012, at an average rate of over 3% per annum and getting worse. Swifts have done a similar thing to Starlings, though at a slightly slower rate. Since the last round of red/amber/green-listing, in 2009, Swifts have continued to decline. Although BBS is a blunt tool for monitoring Swift population levels, the trend is corroborated by a corresponding decline in BirdTrack reporting rates. The tetrad occupancy rates in Bird Atlas 2007-11 (Balmer et al. 2013) showed widespread declines within 20-km squares since the 1988-91 Breeding Atlas. Indeed, the latest Atlas indicates that Swifts have been losing ground for at least the last four decades, since the 1968-72 Atlas. Somehow, it doesn't feel right that the Swift is 'only' amber-listed. Part of the reason lies in the rules for amber- and red-listing. Red-listing requires a decline of at least 50% in 25 years. However, BBS has been running only since 1994 (and BirdTrack since 2002), so, although Swifts declined by 37% between 1994 and 2009, it was only across 15 years. Prior to 1994 we had the Common Birds Census, which collected data for House Sparrows and Starlings but not for Swifts, so the first two species managed 25 years of data. Whether they are designated amber or red, Swifts are declining at roughly 3% per annum, which is equivalent to a population half-life of about 20 years. It is not a crisis yet, but if something is not done, it will become one. How is the Swift faring today compared with in the past and with other species? It is tempting to speculate where Swifts were in pre-history. It is probable that, when the UK was covered in forests, Swifts were limited to a few cliffs and holes in trees, situations in which a few pairs continue to nest in Scotland and in Poland, Scandinavia and places east of there. Then we knocked down our trees, but we (unintentionally) put up alternative nesting places in our dwellings. Now we are building hermetically sealed dwellings and, when we repair existing buildings and roofs, we hermetically seal them up too. Not even insects can get in. There has been a parallel situation in the USA, where they also knocked down much of their forest. As a result, the Purple Martin Progne subis was deprived of nest sites. Roll forward a century or two, and today virtually 100% of the Purple Martin population nests in Purple Martin houses. Over one million homes in the eastern USA have a Purple Martin house in their yard! After knocking the trees down, we Brits then introduced the Starling to our former North American colonies, which occupied the nesting places of the smaller Eastern Bluebirds Sialia sialis. Again, roll forward a century or two and now, virtually 100% of the Eastern Bluebird population now breeds in nestboxes with an entrance too small for Starlings. The recovery of the Barn Owl Tyto alba in the UK has largely been driven by the provision of nestboxes and the Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, another species in trouble, also responds well to nestboxing. Swifts 3 copy 2So what is to be done? Here lies a lesson for us. If we want to keep our Swifts, even expand our Swift population, we need to provide nesting places for them. Eventually, 100% of the UK Swift population will be nesting in places provided deliberately for them. They will require hundreds of thousands of nestboxes. Nature, as part of the built environment, enhances people's lives. Architects and developers can exploit this opportunity. They need to incorporate nesting places into the design of their new developments and renovations (Gunnell et al. 2013). The UK Government wants millions of homes to be built over the coming decades, so the provision of hundreds of thousands of nestboxes - inside eaves and in attics behind gable ends - should be achievable. The example of Fulbourn, in Cambridgeshire, shows what can be done: by 2013, 75 pairs of Swifts had already made use of 227 Swift boxes in a new housing development. Larger organisations, particularly the RSPB, have responded to the amber-listing of Swifts by promoting their cause and creating and maintaining the Swift Inventory. In the southwest this has been used to encourage local authorities to make it a condition of all new development projects that nesting places for Swifts and other building-dependent species are incorporated. This has been adopted as an example of good practice by national stakeholders in the fields of planning, architecture and ecology/nature conservation and is now being put into practice elsewhere in the UK. But the RSPB does not have the practical resources to install nestboxes. What can you do? If you are worried about Corn Crakes Crex crex or Corn Buntings Emberiza calandra, or albatrosses (Diomedeidae) or island endemics, there is not a lot you can do as an individual, apart from chucking your money at larger organisations, such as the RSPB, to do something on your behalf. But, such large organisations cannot do anything on the ground for Swifts: it is up to individuals and small groups, as well as architects and developers. This is where you can make a difference. There is a rising band of Swift 'nuts', of which I am one, all involved in local lobbying and local projects, such as putting nestboxes on their own houses, in a local church belfry or school. By working with local government planning departments, pressure can be brought to bear on developers to conserve existing nest sites and to build nest sites into new developments. Property owners, housing associations, churches and schools can all play their part. Many people put up tit boxes: it provides education and entertainment for their kids and it makes them feel good. But frankly, Blue Cyanistes caeruleus and Great Tits Parus major are doing just fine, so why not divert the money and effort to Swift boxes instead? What's more, Blue and Great Tits will also use Swift boxes. Swift boxes with larger entrances are also good for Starlings and, in our experience, House Sparrows prefer Swift boxes to sparrow terraces. In fact, there is a general shortage of cavities, so by providing Swift boxes you may help all five species, three of which need help. You can do it this year - even June is not too late to attract prospecting young Swifts into their first nesting place. If you erect a tit box, or even a Barn Owl box, there is a high chance that something will move in without doing anything more. Swifts are not that easy. The best place to install Swift boxes is within the building fabric, which although difficult to do in an existing building, can be done in a way that compromises neither the appearance nor the function of the building. Failing this, nestboxes placed on the outside under eaves, protected from rain and sun are a good substitute. Either way, Swifts can be slow at finding new nesting places, unless they are installed to replace nest sites lost nearby, but the whole process can be accelerated by playing attraction calls through speakers placed close to or inside a nestbox. Fortunately small, low-cost, solid-state equipment, easy to install and easy to operate, is now available. In conclusion There are some 25 million homes in the UK. That works out at one pair of Swifts for every 287 homes. Surely, with a combination of efforts by the house-building industry and individuals in their own homes we can do a lot better. Few things in summer are more enthralling than a vibrant colony of Swifts in your neighbourhood. References Balmer, D. E., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B. J., Swann, R. L., Downie, I. S., & Fuller, R. J. 2013. Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford. Gunnell, K., Murphy, B., & Williams, C. 2013. Designing for Biodiversity: a technical guide for new and existing buildings. 2nd edn. RIBA Publishing, London. Musgrove, A., Aebischer, N., Eaton, M., Hearn, R., Newson, S., Noble, D., Parsons, M., Risely, K., & Stroud, D. 2013. Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Brit. Birds 106: 64-100. BBS trends: www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/bbs/latest-results/population-trends Red, amber & green explained: www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/status_explained.aspx RSPB 'help swifts' page: www.rspb.org.uk/thingstodo/surveys/swifts swift-conservation.org actionforswifts.blogspot.com Dick Newell dick.newell@gmail.com PS For news of what Swift nuts are doing in some other places, the contribution of Channel Islanders could be found here: http://www.birdsontheedge.org/2014/05/07/keeping-channel-islands-skies-alive/

Volume: 
Issue 5
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244
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