Our Wild Things columnist Eric Brown describes his excitement waiting for a favourite bird to arrive from Africa and suggests a course of action to prevent its numbers falling any further.

Every year excitement builds around this time as I relish the return of a favourite bird.

The common swift seems drab in an underwhelming shade of brown which often appears completely black. It doesn't matter because the bird is remarkable for what it does, not how it looks.

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This endurance champion with a magician’s box of tricks has been estimated to fly four million miles during an average lifespan of five to six years although a few live to celebrate 21st birthdays!

They eat, sleep, drink and copulate on the wing and it has been claimed they are the fastest bird in level flight with a 69.3mph top speed. The white-throated needletail, a type of swift, has reached 105mph. If the weather’s bad your neighbourhood swifts might retreat to France for a couple of days to continue munching a daily diet of 20,000 insects.

While absent, chicks perform their own trick, shutting down and entering a state of torpor. Once it leaves the nest, a young swift will find its way to Africa with no supervision and probably not touch anything solid again for three years.

News Shopper: A swift nesting box Photo: RSPBA swift nesting box Photo: RSPB


Swifts have been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth and nested in gaps between rocks or in caves. Now they nest in crevices under the eaves of houses. Loyal to breeding sites, they increasingly discover on returning from Africa for summer that house renovation has eliminated their nesting cavities.

This is a leading factor in falling swift numbers. Between 1995 and 2018 they plummeted by 58 per cent and last year swifts were added to the red list of UK’s most endangered birds.

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Just think about swifts attempting to touch down on something solid for the first time in 10 months, only to find roof repairs shutting them out. Luckily swift bricks and swift nestboxes can be purchased to solve the problem. Both are available from the RSPB shop. Call 0345 0347733 or visit rspbshop.co.uk

Scimitar-shaped swifts usually reappear over my house around May 4 so I’m on high alert for their screaming which signals summer’s really here.

Further reading: Swifts and Us by Sarah Gibson published by William Collins £16.99 hdbk