A mass-observation project this summer will honour the city’s historic links with a bird that symbolises the eternal quest for knowledge.

Oxford acts to save the swift

By Olivia Gordon

Oxford’s historic links with an iconic bird have earned it the status of England’s first ‘swift city’ for a mass-observation project this summer. Starting next month, when swifts migrate back to Britain to nest and breed after spending the winter flying in Africa, volunteer observers will watch and listen for these endangered birds.

The swift — a bird which lands only to breed and can fly more than 560 miles a day — is currently amber-listed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with numbers dropping by 47 per cent since 1994. ‘If no action is taken, it’s possible that the species could be red-listed by the next review in 2021,’ says Lucy Hyde from the RSPB. Red-listing means a severe fall in numbers, by more than 50 per cent in 25 years.

The plummeting population of the swift in Britain is thought to be caused by the decline of their food, insects — a consequence of the arrival of agricultural insecticides. Swifts also increasingly struggle to find nesting sites. Traditionally they nest under eaves, under roof tiles or in cracks in walls. But, says Hyde, ‘due to extensive restoration and renovations of many buildings, existing or potential nesting sites are becoming scarce.’

The RSPB is inviting people in Oxford to take part in a new ‘citizen science’ project observing the swift as part of the Oxford Swift City project. Swifts are found across the UK, but the RSPB is focusing this scheme on Oxford because, as Hyde explains, ‘swifts have particularly strong cultural and scientific associations with Oxford.’

Oxford acts to save the swift

Swifts, or ‘martlets’, appear in the heraldic arms of Worcester College, St Peter’s College and University College. They are ‘a symbol of the eternal quest for knowledge, learning and adventure’, Hyde says. The design and age of Oxford’s buildings have also made them attractive as swift nests. Most famously, swifts have been nesting for decades in the tower at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (pictured right).

In 1947, David Lack, then director of Oxford University’s Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, started studying this group of swifts and wrote Swifts in a Tower (1956), still regarded today as the definitive swift reference book. The number of swifts in the tower has remained monitored closely every year — the longest continuous study of any bird in the world.

‘Swifts are difficult birds to monitor as they are very fast, nest out of sight, and are only in the UK for three months each year, so we need help from the local community to help us improve our existing records,’ says Hyde.

For some swifts arriving this summer, says Chris Jarvis, an education officer at the museum, ‘this will be the first time they have landed since hatching three years ago, having followed the summer sun from Oxford to South Africa, flying non-stop in their search for insects, ever since launching themselves from their nests.  Their screams as they arrive each May lift our spirits and remind us all working inside that summer has arrived.’

Studies of the museum’s birds bear out the RSPB’s findings. Jarvis says: ‘Each year the new hatchlings are ringed, and returning ringed birds are recorded, giving us an unbroken record of changes in their population over the last 70 years.  Worryingly, this and other studies seem to show their population falling.’

More than 100 volunteers living in or nearby Oxford will spend two evenings at dusk each month from May to July observing swifts in a 500m2 area local to them. They will record any nests they find, as well as noting any ‘screaming parties’ of swifts they see and hear.

As part of the two-year SwiftCity scheme, which is funded by £83,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, current nesting sites will be maintained and 300 new sites will be added to buildings in Oxford.

Oxford acts to save the swift

During Swift City, the museum will be involved in working with city schools to develop and deliver activities introducing children to the cultural significance of swifts and their natural history, including their great migration and the ecosystems that support them. 

Children will also be able to follow the development of the new nestlings on the museum’s webcams as they hatch, fledge and take their first great leap into the outside world.

Swift experts will be on hand to meet members of the public and give talks at the museum.

‘It’s not just swifts that are in trouble,’ warns Professor Chris Perrins, emeritus fellow at the Edward Grey Institute. ‘Swallows and house martins are down; the other birds which take flying insects are down.’ But swifts, he says, ‘have a certain cachet the others don’t.’ Arguably they are the most aerial of birds.

For Dr Charles Forster, a fellow in medical ethics at Green Templeton College and author of Being a Beast, a book in which he tried to understand what it feels like to be a swift, this bird is a symbol of the environment in harmony.

‘When they’re late, I panic,’ he says. ‘What’s gone wrong with the world? But with the first scream I have Ted Hughes’ sudden relief. They’re back! Things still work.’

He adds: ‘Much of the language used about swifts in the literature is violent. But they do violence to the mundane. Their scythe-like wings slash open the sky so that we can go there. Nothing seems impossible once they’re here.’

Common swift photographed in flight by Gallinago_media and on branch by Alberto Novo, both via Shutterstock. Museum of Natural History by Oxford University Images / Whitaker Studio


By Kenneth Wakely

Best of luck with yr endeavours. I'm afraid I'm an ornithological dyslexic. Do swifts have forked tails? I once told a friend of mine that, if I was a dictator, I wd have every ivy-covered and dead tree cut down, I was severely rebuked and advised that they were both great foraging places for insect-seeking birds. Is that true?

By Ken Wells

This also reminded me of the naturalist Gilbert White's interest in Swifts, and his and Selborne's connections with Oxford. (White having been a fellow of Oriel College and Magdalen College owning land locally).