The University is trying to stop the decline of the charismatic birds — and you can help.


By Annette Cunningham

For many years swifts have been a cherished part of Oxford’s summer, providing graceful aerial displays as they swoop among the dreaming spires. 

They feed, drink, sleep and sometimes even mate on the wing, only landing to rear their young, usually in man-made structures such as church towers and under roof tiles and eaves, making the birds hard to study and nests difficult to spot. However, for over 60 years swifts have been nesting in the ventilation flues in the Museum of Natural History’s tower here in Oxford.  This provides scientists with the rare opportunity to study these fascinating but elusive birds.  The tower now has over 100 nesting boxes and daily progress is featured throughout their breeding season — May to August — via webcam on the Museum’s website.

In Oxford, as elsewhere in the country, the swift population has declined dramatically. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, numbers have decreased by around 40 percent over the last twenty years. There is no single clear cause for this decline. It is likely to be the result of a combination of fewer insects, unpredictable weather conditions, habitat changes in their African wintering quarters and repairs and renovations to buildings which result in the loss of nest places. Swifts are site-faithful, returning annually to their chosen spot. If these spaces become inaccessible then finding a new site can prove tricky — especially as most modern buildings lack the crevices they need for nesting.

The University of Oxford is keen to help stop the decline of these charismatic birds. We are looking to engage the help of individuals to identify which of our buildings host nesting swifts and in which areas of the University they are most frequently seen. Instigated by Chris Mason, who runs the Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project, the Estates Services’ Environmental Sustainability team recently held a lunchtime talk at the Department for Continuing Education in Wellington Square – home to nesting swifts and three nest boxes.  The event featured a number of speakers helping to highlight the swifts’ plight, providing information about nesting habits, ways to identify them, the need to maintain and record existing nesting sites and what is being done to provide new nest places.

The good news is, though, that anyone in Oxford can help, too. You don’t need to be any kind of expert  — you just need to be able to report your swift sightings. The key to discerning swifts from house martins and swallows is to stop, look and listen: swifts have a piercing, screaming call when flying near their nests. They also live on the wing, which means you won’t see them perched on wires, boast a slightly forked tail, and are dark sooty brown in colour — often appearing black in the sky.

To record any sighting you make, you can either download a data record sheet from our website, email us, contact us on Twitter or Facebook or call 01865 614893. The more detail you can provide the better – not only where the sighting took place but how many you saw and if you spotted it entering a building or just flying around.  This data will inform the University, and other parties, where the swifts like to frequent and help monitor numbers. It will also assist identify potential old and new University buildings to place nesting boxes and feed into the University’s Biodiversity Strategy.  Additionally, the data will assist the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which is now monitoring swift activity across the wider Oxford area. And if you notice swifts in non-University areas, you can  let the RSPB know.

Oxford welcomes visits from millions of tourists every year. Let’s do everything we can to help these special visitors from Africa keep returning.

Image from Flickr under Creative Commons license.