Pic: Micheál Casey
Life on the wing
Ever cursed midges? Of course you have. If you have ever spent an evening swatting them away and then scratching where they bit you, you’ll be glad to hear of the existence of super-fast, aerodynamic, lean, clean midge-eating machines. But before you go running off to your local hardware store to order one, look up.
If you’re lucky, you might spot one: A swift.
Among the most charming and wondrous of our winged creatures, a pair of these fast-moving sickle-shaped birds will consume half a million midges and flying insects during their summer sojourn on these shores.
And that’s not the only reason to love them. Get ready to be impressed.
Swifts live their whole lives on the wing, stopping only to nest and rear their young. They eat, drink, preen, sleep and mate while flying. These small birds soar to 3,000 metres above the earth to sleep, restfully riding a thermal, with half of their brain on snooze.
When rearing young, they approach their nests at over 40 miles per hour and come to a stop without slowing down. They fold their body down from the neck and use it as a massive break – much like the landing flap on an airplane’s wings.
Swifts are the perfect guest. Unlike swallows and housemartins, they leave no mess under their nest sites.
When swift chicks are getting ready to leave the nest, they go into training, literally. They do push-ups on their wings and tails to make them strong enough for flight. Once they can hold a push-up for ten seconds and they weigh about 45 grams, they are ready to fly away.
The training regime is vital: A young swift will leave its nest at six to eight weeks of age, and its (tiny) feet won’t touch the earth again for at least two years. (The Latin name for swifts, Apus apus – ‘No feet no feet’ – is a misnomer. They do, however, have very short legs and can only land on the ground with great difficulty.)
Swifts fly about 500 miles a day. During their lives, they fly about 2 million miles – that’s more than four trips to the Moon and back.
Swifts, which arrive in Ireland at the end of April and start of May and return to Africa in August, have been around for almost 50 million years. Fifty. Million.
Sadly, these incredible little birds are now in trouble. The swift population is falling dramatically – in the last 15 years it has declined by 46 percent. Why? Well, it’s another sorry tale of human progress versus the natural world.
As Lough Carra-based conservationist Lynda Huxley explains, swifts nest in old buildings, but old buildings are being demolished or renovated – and new buildings have no nooks and crannies for the swifts. When the birds arrive back from Africa to raise a new family, they find their nesting places have gone. They have become homeless.
Mayo takes the lead
Lynda Huxley, GMIT Mayo Green Campus Co-ordinator, is working together with Swift Conservation Ireland to try to reverse the decline of the swifts here in Mayo. She is identifying the remaining swift nesting sites, and helping to erect swift nesting boxes close by, to encourage more. Already, she is meeting with success.
“Mayo is leading the way in swift conservation in the Republic,” she tells The Mayo News, explaining that nest boxes have been installed at the GMIT Mayo Campus in Castlebar, where she works, as well as at two schools – Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Claremorris and and Swinford NS. The Linenhall Arts Centre also has installed nest boxes, and it is hoped that soon a camera will beam live images of the nests’ new residents to the art centre’s café.
Westport Town Hall, currently being renovated, will be the first building in the Republic to have built-in nest boxes for swifts. “You won’t actually see the box there’ll just be the entrance hole in the wall – that’s the first time that’s been done in the Republic. It’s been done in the UK and Northern Ireland but no one’s ever done it yet here,” says Lynda, who praises the town architect, Simon Wall, for his support of the swift conservation project.
Feathering their nests
GMIT was the first nest-site location to have swift boxes added to it. That was back in 2012, and this year, for the first time, swifts have bred in them. It’s a massive break through.
“You can see four lives streams of the GMIT nest boxes on the website [www.gmit.ie/mayo-campus/swift-live-streaming]. On Camera 1 and Camera 4 we’ve got two pairs with chicks. In Camera 2 we’ve got a nest that is ready, and we’ve got a bird that’s going in there, but we’re not sure it’s found a mate yet. In Camera 3, we’re actually showing eight other nests in a security-camera format, and we’ve noticed a pair of birds in two of those [nests] and four others are having feathers added, so we know that there are birds using all but two of our boxes. It’s brilliant – we’re so excited I can’t tell you!
“Swifts take a long time to start to breed in a place once they’ve found it,” says Lynda. “That’s mainly because they don’t land anywhere other than their nest site, so they have to collect all their nest material on the wing. You can just imagine what it’s like flying around trying to find enough feathers and grass to make a nest – so, they usually find a nest site one year and then for a year or two they build it up and then they actually breed.
“To help them along, we actually put some hen feathers already in the boxes in a nest mould, which is a wooden form with a hollow in it to stop the eggs from rolling around – we put some feathers from our hens on those, we stuck them down with non-toxic glue, and that gives them a head start.”
Kind of like a prefab for birds? “Exactly! If you interfered with their nest after they had settled in they’d shy away from it, but if you make it cosy for them initially, before they’ve moved in, it works fine!”
Calling them in
Lynda has gone to even more lengths to encourage the swifts. “We play swift calls too, to encourage them to find the boxes. In the GMIT, they’re playing 24 hours a day,” she reveals.
Swifts are known for ‘screaming’ as they fly around looking for a nesting site. Does a CD playing round-the-clock screaming not incur the wrath of human neighbours? “No,” Lynda laughs, “no one has complained whatsoever. The call that you play is not a flying-around bird call, it’s actually much gentler – it’s the call that young birds make when they’re in the nest.
“As swifts don’t land, they find it hard to find their nest place, so they always look for an existing nest site where other birds are already nesting. This means that when you see swifts in a building, usually you’ll find more than one pair, because they’ve found where another pair are nesting and have nested somewhere in that same location as well. So the calls that we’re playing to them are actually saying: ‘Hey, this is a place where swifts are able to breed and nest, and so you might find a place as well’.
“Because they’re looking for a small hole and they’re trying to do that on the wing, you can just imagine that finding a place to nest is really quite a lengthy process for them. We’re speeding that process up for them.”
Save our Swifts
Towns that have swifts usually have a building that houses the central colony. In Westport, for example, it’s the old Sisters of Mercy convent, where at least eleven pairs are nesting. “The Council knows that,” Lynda explains, “and they have promised to ensure that whatever they do to that building they won’t block up the swift sites. On top of that they’ve said they’ll put swift boxes in the new Town Council building [now to house the West Mayo Area Council Office] at the back of the convent. They’ve been fantastic about it.
“Another place where the swifts are in Westport is Blousers’ [pub on James’s Street] – honestly! If you stand facing the pub, at the top right, just under the gutter, there are four or five nests in there. It’s wonderful, and it’s why it’ll be great having the new nest boxes in the Town Hall, because they’re right beside each other.”
Because Swifts like to nest where other swifts are already established, conservation is key. Towns that are lucky enough to still have swifts should do all they can to hold on to them: Once they leave an area, it’s very hard to get them back again. And thus their territory continues to shrink.
“They’re a town bird … There are none in Louisburgh now; there used to swifts in Belmullet but now there are none – why I’m not sure; they used to be on Achill, but I think they’re gone from there too,” says Lynda. “We’ve only got about 150 nest sites in the county. I probably haven’t found them all, but I’d say we won’t exceed 200. It’s a low number.”
Other sites where Lynda has confirmed colonies include Ballina, Crossmolina, Swinford, Foxford, Newport, Claremorris and Ballinrobe.
“The whole [Save our Swifts] project is helping swifts, but it’s raising awareness about the birds as well, which is really important. Once people know about swifts and what they need, they love them and only want to support them. And supporting them is so important to their future in the West of Ireland – and we are the most westerly point in Europe for the swift, so we are a really important location.”
Our towns, our skies, our ecosystem would be all the poorer without summer visits from the busy little swift. “They are stunning. The more I know about them the more I’m amazed by them,” says Lynda. “There’s nothing like them … They’re beautiful, they really are.”
When swifts enter their nests, their long scythe-like wings fold over their backs into a crisscross of perfect symmetry and they disappear from sight. It’s a beautiful image. What a shame if they were to disappear from sight forever.
To find out what you can do to help save the swift in Mayo or to find out more about the Save our Swifts Project, contact Linda Huxley on 094 9032422 or email@example.com, or visit www.swiftconservationireland.blogspot.ie.
Lynda will give talks on swifts in Claremorris, Foxford and Ballinrobe during during Heritage Week, August 23 to 31. Dates and times to be confirmed – keep an eye on www.heritageweek.ie and The Mayo News.