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Trollopes Bird Notes

October 2020

Click for Trollope's May 2020 notes

In celebration of the swift

A few years ago, I bought a swift nest box and wondered where I would erect it. The nearest nests locally are in Rolvenden, and in Cranbrook, where I have seen and heard them flying up the High Street. In Rolvenden, I know they have nested on St Mary’s Church, usually about three to six pairs, without missing a year, mostly on the north side of the church under the eaves.

With the blessing of Robin Dalton Holmes, I decided to place the box on his house on The Green in Benenden, where I know they have nested before, to see if we could tempt them back to breed. Beside the box was the alarm box with the company name Swift on it, so they should have had no problem finding it.

Swift
Swift

The spring duly arrived and swifts certainly had a look at the five-star accommodation put up for them but ignored it and may have nested in the eaves just round the corner. The following year a pair possibly did nest in the eaves and I was hopeful that the box would come into use, as swifts are colonial nesters. So, imagine my delight when Robin emailed me this year to say that the original pair had returned and another pair were investigating the box. Swifts do not breed until they are two/three years old and I wonder if the new pair might be offspring of the established pair.

Swifts are not faring very well, with the population in the Southeast falling by 47 per cent from 1995 to 2012. The latest figures suggest that the downward trend is continuing, pushing the loss to 62 per cent (2018). Swifts feed entirely on flying insects and we all know that the fronts of our cars after long journeys are relatively splatter-free compared to 20 years ago, but one of the other reasons for this decline is that modern housing designs do not have accessible eaves for them to nest in, compared to older ones. New houses can have a swift brick (a specially-designed brick with a cavity large enough for a swift to nest) but I have seen none of them used in all the new houses being built in the neighbourhood.

However, the installation of nest boxes can do the trick. I would encourage anyone in the parish, particularly those living around The Green, to erect a box. Nest boxes need to be above five metres high.

Swifts arrive in this country late April to mid-May and usually return to their old nests. The nest itself is a very simple affair, with a few bits of grass and feathers, all collected whilst flying. Swifts have tiny, strong feet but virtually no legs and struggle to take off from the ground. They lay about three eggs and incubation lasts about 19 to 25 days, fledging about 32 to 56 days.

Compared to birds such as robins and blackbirds, these are wide figures, because unlike these birds, swifts are able to enter a semi-torpid state if the weather is bad and no insects are about. Both parents raise the young and pairs are monogamous, breeding with the same mate in following years. Once the young leave the nest, they are completely independent of their parents and will not touch land until they breed themselves, which can be as long as two to three years.

Swifts spend the winter in South Africa and the normal lifespan is about six to nine years, with the longest-lived being just short of 18. Although they look and behave like house martins and swallows, they are not even closely related - their closest avian cousins are hummingbirds, another species capable of extraordinary ability on the wing.

Charles Trollope cetetal@btinternet.com

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