Room at the top: woman races to help swifts blocked from Sheffield roofs

Read Time:6 Minute, 54 Second

The Guardian

When Chet Cunago heard that scaffolding was blocking swifts from entering their ancestral nests in the eaves of homes in Sheffield, she raced into action.

After frantic calls to the council, charities and fellow nature lovers, she got the scaffold boards removed and assembled a volunteer group to search for overlooked swift nests in all the council houses scheduled for renovation in Handsworth.

Since her labours last month saved multiple nests of this rapidly declining bird, she and other volunteers are now assisting the surveying of 1,500 council homes so that re-roofing does not disrupt next year’s swift nesting season.

Cunago’s efforts are part of burgeoning volunteer action nationwide to make safe spaces for the endangered birds, which typically nest inside old roofs. There are now 119 swift groups across the country, dedicated to saving nest sites, creating new nest spaces and rescuing injured swifts.

“It’s extraordinary. I don’t think any other bird in the country has so many local groups devoted to it,” said Nick Brown, co-ordinator of the annual Swift Awareness Week. “It is a bird that has a special ability to engage people, especially in the middle of the city.”

The migratory swift is celebrated in poetry by Ted Hughes, in song, image and “spell” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris and in two more recently published books, but it spends just three months each year in Britain, raising young who do not touch the ground for up to four years until they breed.

Its screaming parties of birds were once commonplace above cities on hot summer nights but have drastically dwindled, with the species last year added to the “red list” of endangered birds after its population fell by 58% from 1995.

Although plummeting insect populations are a factor in the insectivorous swift’s decline, swift experts say the loss of ancestral nesting sites is critical in Britain.

The race to insulate homes and reduce carbon emissions threatens to worsen the situation, but swift groups are on a mission to show that it is possible to have energy efficient, swift-friendly homes.

Mel Savas and two friends started S6 Swifts in Sheffield last summer and the group has since provided 260 nest spaces for swifts by encouraging local people to buy swift boxes, which some enthusiasts make and sell for just £20. They found a friendly aerial installer who offered to fit the boxes under eaves for £35, and 130 residents have since taken up their offer of boxes.

“We thought we’d do one or two fittings, and it’s just gone crazy,” said Savas. “The more you find out about swifts and their plight and how wonderful they are, you think ‘we need to do more’. Boxes are one thing but protecting existing nesting spaces is what’s most important.”

Swifts return to the sites where they were raised or first nested every May and when Cunago was told by a local birdwatcher that scaffolding was preventing swifts re-entering their nests in Handsworth, she persuaded Sheffield city council to swiftly take down the boards.

She and a hurriedly assembled band of volunteers including swift lovers from Leeds and Lincoln then watched 400 homes at dusk to see where swifts were entering roofs and alerted the council to 24 active nests where renovations were due to start. The building work has been delayed to allow the birds to rear this year’s young.

“I saw a swift going back in one of the first nests where they had taken down the scaffold boards so it worked – they saved it, so hats off to the council,” said Cunago. “Swifts have been on Earth almost since the dinosaurs and we’ve killed off over half of them in 30 years because we’re sealing up their homes without even realising.”

Sheffield city council is re-roofing more than 7,000 homes with bespoke roof tiles to help bats, alongside gaps left deliberately under the eaves to allow swifts to nest there.

Belinda Wigg, a biodiversity officer for Sheffield city council, said: “Everybody has worked really well as a team. At the beginning of the project we explained to the housing team the importance of not boxing in the eaves. Plastic soffit boxes are often put in, not for insulation but usually to lower maintenance costs, but that then excludes all bird nesting possibilities. By keeping eaves open we’re retaining that bird-nesting resource across 7,000 properties.”

Ian Cracknell of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, which is working with volunteer groups to map swift nests, said the key to saving swifts was to increase surveying so nests were not accidentally destroyed. “These losses will be contributing to the declines in swifts but we can try and counter the boxing-off of soffits and eaves with people surveying and letting people know where there are nests,” he said.

It is calculated that 22,000 swift nestboxes must be erected every year to counteract the loss of nesting sites as buildings are modernised.

According to swift experts, there are a variety of cost-effective ways in which highly insulated homes can still make space for swifts, from small holes drilled into plastic soffits to swift bricks, which have an integral nest-hole which can be used by many urban birds.

In Sheffield, a petition is calling for council planners to ensure swift bricks are fitted to all new homes and extensions.

According to Nick Brown, new building regulations could ensure swift-friendly homes are built nationwide. “We need to get to the point where all new buildings have in-built swift bricks, which will help a range of urban birds including sparrows and blue tits. Groups are working really hard to engage with housing associations, builders and developers but this needs to happen much more extensively.”

Cunago and other volunteers are now identifying swift nests where the council’s professional bat and bird surveyors have spotted swifts around the 1,500 homes due for re-roofing next year. The only snag is that Cunago is currently kept awake all night nursing grounded baby swifts.

The heatwave has caused chicks to seek out cool breezes at the entrance to their nest and they’ve then fallen out and found they are too young to fly. One swift rescued by Cunago had even dragged itself into a kitchen to cool itself beside an open fridge door.

How you can help swifts

  • Erect a swift box, which costs £30–£100 depending on size. Local swift groups can help advise on installation or roofers and aerial installers can help. South-facing eaves are often too hot for the nests.

  • Site-faithful swifts are notoriously difficult to attract to new nest boxes but playing swift calls from an adjacent window can work. Swift Conservation sells automatic MP3 players with swift calls for £22. And even if the box isn’t adopted by swifts, it will certainly be used by other birds.

  • Drilling holes into plastic soffits and adding dividers inside is a cheap and unobtrusive way to make a modern house swift-friendly. Add swift bricks (£25) to any new extensions.

  • Join a local swift group and help survey nest sites – there will almost certainly be a swift group in your nearest city or town. When more swift nest sites are known about, they can be protected.

  • Join campaigns for swift bricks to be fitted in every new home. Alert developers, councils, housing associations and architects to the issue.

  • Grounded swifts can usually get airborne again, so if you find a grounded swift it may be immature (it can only fly if its wings are at least 16cm long) or ill. Put it in a warm box, give it water by running a wetted cotton bud around the edge of its beak, avoiding the nostrils, and call a local swift rescuer. A full list of swift rescuers can be found here.

July 15, 2022 at 06:36PM Patrick Barkham

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