Swifts and Martins

It could be argued that few birds have lived alongside us for as long as the swifts and martins. Originally at home in caves and cliff faces, they moved with us into our dwellings from farmsteads to tower blocks. Whilst the poets’ favourite, the swallow, is certainly a bird of rural villages and farmland, and sand martins have been reluctant to leave their waterside residences, swifts and house martins seem to enjoy a semi urban lifestyle. Wheeling over dreaming spires, scything down narrow market streets, or bubbling calls under terraced-eaves, they are nature’s sound track to summer in the city.

But our summer skies are falling silent.

As we make out own homes more efficient and restore older buildings, we are closing out the birds that used to share our spaces. The migrants battle through treacherous journeys across thousands of miles to reach our towns each spring, only to find their nest sites blocked off, netted, pressure washed, demolished. Perhaps they could try again elsewhere if they are lucky, but these species are site loyal; those individuals are likely to be the same birds that nested here last year, and the year before that and the… in fact they were probably hatched here!

Of course the success of every nest depends of ample supply of insect food to fuel the growth and development of strong healthy chicks, and the insects are dying; poisoned and toxic.

Swift populations plummeted by a shocking 53% between 1995 and 2016. House martins are thought to be faring better but continue to face similar pressures.

How can we help change the fortunes of these summer companions?

First, it helps to know who’s who…

Swifts are high fliers, fast and agile. Their screeching calls and ‘rollercoaster’ flights are distinctive. Look for dark birds, with long, sharply pointed, sickle curved wings.

House Martins are smaller than swifts, with triangular wings, short tails, and white flash across the rump (bottom!) The twitter in flight and sometimes perch on walls under the eaves of houses or on wires, ‘chatting’ with bubbling sounds.

The golden rules to tell whom your houseguests are?

Well if they are swooping up at high speed into your house, and nesting in cavities within the roof or wall, dropping out again at breakneck speed before winging off across the sky, they’ll be swifts.

If they are perching on the wall, and nesting in cup shaped nests made from mud that appear to be glued under the eaves, they are house martins.

(Swallows also make mud nests, but usually position theirs wedged on a ledge of rafters. They tend to be found in more rural areas, and are distinguished by long triangular wings and long forked tails, as well as a dark blue back, cream underside and red bib.
Sand martins are pale brown, and nest in tunnels in sand banks and cliff faces, usually near water)

Swift action

Despite the pressures and difficulties faced by these amazing birds, there are ways we can help them.

Putting pressure on our governments to find ways to reduce reliance on pesticides, and supporting environmentally friendly land use and farming schemes, is vital to the future of all our wildlife. Invertebrates are one of the building blocks of a resilient ecosystem, with their numbers crashing, our much loved birds are in trouble.

Providing nest boxes is an excellent way we can make a difference. This is particularly important if maintenance or construction work to buildings is going to reduce or remove the breeding spaces used by existing colonies. Nest boxes are also a perfect opportunity to add wildlife value to your new build or development.

You can buy pre-made nest boxes for swifts that can be included into new walls, or retrofitted to existing buildings, and artificial cup-nests for house martins are also widely available. Alternatively you can make boxes yourself! The RSPB are running a campaign to encourage 1000 (or more!) new swift nest boxes by the end of April. Find out more by searching #Wingcoming on social media. 

We are so close to reaching our target of 1,000 swift boxes before they arrive at the end of April. There are different ways you can provide a home for swifts, can you help? https://t.co/TxQeNgnvsu #WingComing #Swifts pic.twitter.com/5FL4jMgqT2— RSPB (@Natures_Voice) April 10, 2019

Via @Natures_Voice on Twitter

There are many worthwhile ways you could spend your Easter bank holiday weekend. Taking some time out from pre-BBQ to build a nest box, just in time for these birds returning on the next few weeks, is a perfect way to celebrate spring and help our precious wildlife.
Or how about just raising awareness with your friends over a pint in the local pub garden? Perhaps you can inspire them into writing a joint letter to your local authority or MP to encourage support for campaigns to include nest boxes in all suitable new build and redevelopment schemes.

However you enjoy the long weekend, don’t forget to keep an eye on the skies to welcome these seasoned travellers when swifts, house martins and swallows return to share our homes, and our summer once again.

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