Photo: © BromhallAdult swift with two chicks. Swifts usually nest in holes and cavities in building roofs, but new construction methods have made these in short supply


After Tony Tilford saw how edible-nest swiftlet numbers have been boosted in Indonesia (see June 6 issue), he wondered if interested conservationists in the UK could use similar audio techniques to replicate a population boom in our own common swift


WHEN I was in Indonesia last year, I was very surprised at the number of swifts that were present. It was interesting to learn that the business of “farming” the nests of the edible-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) was largely responsible. It was now being carried out on an industrial scale with large buildings being taken over for this purpose. These birds were attracted to the site by playing back the swifts’ calls through loudspeakers and, once accustomed to their new environment, commenced to build their nests and breed there. It is very effective and the population of birds seems to be thriving.

On my return to the UK, I couldn’t help thinking we could adopt similar technology to bring back our own vanishing population of common swifts. I can recall long balmy summer days when swifts were very abundant, but so were insects and suitable nest sites. Unfortunately, there has been, according to British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) surveys, a huge decline of more than 30 per cent in swift sightings over the past 20 or so years. Much of this has been put down to new building methods with new roofing, and the elimination of other features attractive to swifts.

This is very different to southern Europe, where it is often difficult to miss them. But there they have not closed out all of the nesting cavities from their buildings, as we have done in the UK. Our roof and building structures are quite different and there has not been the necessity to re-roof and close out all of the spaces so essential to swifts. After all, we need to protect ourselves from much harsher weather.

My search on the internet revealed that swift conservation in the UK was already advanced compared to my thinking; there is a growing movement of private conservationists all intent on bringing back those eerie screeching calls significant of the swooping flocks that once commonly marked our warm summer days.

I was encouraged to visit a friend near Cambridge and saw for myself what could be done with a bit of effort and not a lot of cost. His experiments to cajole the swifts to nest around his home have been very successful. He has tried many different types of swift nest-boxes over several years and demonstrated how successful they can be.

Although my interest is in aviculture, I immediately wanted to give it a try. It is nigh-on impossible (and considerably unfair) to keep birds such as swifts in an aviary; after all they stay on the wing throughout their lives, except for the short time they must land to breed. So, the next best thing was to build my own nest-box and attract passing birds to come and rear their young in it. I would be very happy to have swifts close to my home again and couldn’t wait to get back and start planning.

I found a suitable site on the gable end of a building where there was once a ventilation hole slightly over 5m (16ft) from the ground. I was able to design a quadruple box to fix to the wall inside the building with tunnels leading through the ventilation hole to the outside wall. Access to the inside nesting chambers is by hinged doors on the back with an expanded polystyrene concave nest cup in each.

Attracting swifts into the artificial nest site is achieved by playing back audio recordings of their calls early in the morning or late evenings when they come down from high in the sky to much nearer the ground. While this may seem over-technical to some, it is not at all difficult and there is plenty of help should you need it. Just a simple cheap amplifier that will play back from a memory card through a small high-frequency speaker is really all that is needed.

Just bear in mind that if you decide to do it yourself, the piercing high-frequency calls can be disturbing to some neighbours. So, early consultation and judicious control are well advised. Playing back swift calls for an hour after sunrise and again for an hour before dusk has proven most advantageous in attracting swifts to a new home. I use a simple timer switch. All of this technical information is available from the Action for Swifts website (visit:

Our adult swifts should have returned to the UK in late April with juveniles coming a couple of weeks later. They will spend just enough time here to breed before returning to their wintering haunts in Africa and most will have left our shores by the end of August.

Having seen my first swift of the year, I am now left waiting in hope that all of my efforts will have paid off.

Tony Tilford has written books on a variety of subjects, including aviculture, bird field guides and travel guides.

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