Swifts are remarkable birds. They are the fastest recorded species in level flight, at 69.3 mph. Although the peregrine falcon can reach much higher speeds, it achieves this by dropping steeply downwards, in a stoop, rather than actually flying. And swifts need to be experts at flying – they will be doing it for nearly all of their lives – eating, drinking, mating and even sleeping on the wing.
If you set eyes on a swift, it will probably be high in the sky, a sickle-shaped silhouette with a high-pitched cry. They often get together to form ‘screaming parties’, so listen out for them in your area.
It is often assumed that birds flying for long periods of time sleep unihemispherically, i.e. with one side of their brain at a time. This type of sleep has been observed in dolphins swimming. However, observing birds in flight and whether their eyes are closed or not is much more difficult! Recent studies suggest that in fact, some birds can perform perfectly competently during their waking hours even when they have had little or no sleep – something we humans can’t manage. It’s also been shown that frigate birds sleep 0.7 hours per day when on long flights, in contrast to the 12.8 hours of sleep they get per day when based on land.
Swifts visit the UK between March and October, migrating from as far away as South Africa and covering up to 500 miles per day on their journey. When they arrive here, they return to their previous years nest site, but if for some reason it’s gone, they must find a new one. Swifts mate for life, sharing parental duties to raise 2 or 3 chicks. They have adapted to our towns and cities by nesting in buildings, and make quiet residents, leaving few or no droppings near their nesting area. The only time swifts spend on their feet is when nesting. They are ungainly on their feet and leave the nest by dropping steeply from the entrance before swooping away to collect tens of thousands of insects per day to feed their young. The chicks prepare for their life in the air by performing wing press-ups in the nest to build up their muscles. Once they fledge, they will stay airborne for three years!
- Grow plants that are good for insects
- Put up swift nest-boxes
- Help survey your area for swift nests and report your findings to the Hampshire Swifts Survey webpage. Knowing where swifts nest is key to protecting them.
I thought it unlikely that our house would be suitable for swift nest boxes, as we live in a dormer bungalow, but I contacted Hampshire Swifts, just in case and was delighted to find that we have the perfect spot for two boxes. Not only that, but it only costs £35 to have each made and installed. The charity were very prompt replying to my enquiry and further questions, and within 24 hours we were booked in. I am hoping to get some neighbours interested and urge you all to take swift action with us!