10 things you might not know about swifts

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10 things you might not know about swifts

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Swifts really are the birds of the moment. They’re now returned to many areas of the UK after a winter spent in Africa to scream and scythe their way through the sky. Many more are winging their way to us, so keep scanning the skies for that unmistakable sickle-winged shape, and listening out for those calls. If “your” birds aren’t back yet, don’t worry: swifts will continue to arrive throughout May.

There's no mistaking a swift - just remember all black plumage and "boomerang" shape (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)

Our Summer 2017 Nature’s Home magazine has the most beautiful close up swift on the cover (it’s my favourite cover ever) and a great feature all about the work going on in towns and cities around the UK to help them - building the swift cities! Not only that, we need you to tell us about your swifts this summer in the RSPB swift survey. This really is the month of the swift.

What a beauty - check out those big eyes and a bill that was made for insect-eating (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)

I’ve picked out 10 of my favourite swift facts from the RSPB’s archives to keep the swift celebration going and to hopefully tickle your fancy with a few things about these amazing birds you may not know...

1.Swifts have an average life span of about five and a half years. One bird in Oxford was found dying in 1964, 16 years after it was ringed as an adult, so was likely to be at least 18 years old. This bird probably flew about four million miles in its lifetime, the same as flying to the moon and back eight times.

2.Swifts have four toes, four arranged in twos, with each pair pointing sideways rather than forwards, a bit like a chameleon or a koala.

3.They use saliva for building their nests in roof spaces and cavities.

4.The swift probably eats more species of small insect and spiders than any other UK bird – well over 300.

5.Swifts drink by gliding over smooth water and taking sips and bathe by flying slowly through falling rain.

Swifts very rarely land, but they have to for nesting of course (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)

6. Their eyes have moveable bristles in front – sunglasses for reducing glare when they are on the wing.

7. Swifts can sleep on the wing – a French Airman in the 1914-18 war glided down with engines off behind enemy lines. At 10,000 feet he found himself amongst apparently motionless birds. One of them was caught in the machine and on the following day was found to be an adult male swift.

8.When they are about month old, baby swifts do ‘press ups’ in the nest to strengthen their wings. They lift themselves up by pushing down on their wings. By the time they’re ready to go, they can hold their bodies clear off the ground like this for several seconds.

9.Each ball of food that the parents bring to their babies weighs just over a gram and contains 300-1,000 individual insects and spiders.

10.There are seven species of swift on the UK list. Our familiar swift is the only one that that breeds here, but there are six other rare visitors. The Alpine swift is a big swift with white underparts and throat, but the pallid swift is extremely similar to “our” swift. The little swift lives up to its name and has a white rump like a house martin. Then there are the really rare ones: Pacific swift, chimney swift from North America and the awesome, and incredibly fast, needle-tailed swift.

Tell us about your swifts!

Once your local swifts have returned, We'd like you to let us know where you have seen them and where they're nesting. Watch out for screaming groups of swifts flying at roof-height (that means they're breeding nearby), or where you've seen swifts entering a roof or hole in a building, which means they are probably nesting.

We need sightings from anywhere across the UK and you can enter as many records as you like at different times. You can even submit sightings you remember from the past - the more records, the better!

Put some time in your diary this summer for searching for swifts - and tell us about them! (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)

If you have sent in records before, it’s important to know if birds are still returning to the same areas. Please tell us what’s happening there this year. Your information will increase the RSPB's knowledge of swifts, so that more nest sites can be provided and protected for these beautiful birds during their short, but very important time spent in the UK.

Have a great swift summer!

  • Thanks for all your reports! Please do make sure you submit them as part of the RSPB's swift survey (link in blog above). Good luck with your nesting birds.It is definitely swift season now in this glorious hot weather. They are hopefully finding plenty of food as insects hatch out everywhere to keep their strength up.

  • Our Swifts arrived on 9 May in uk and the pair are in their home in our neighbour's house. We have seen about 5 or 6 so far, close by

    We keep playing the cd in hope that they will use our Swift box, but no luck yet. We will keep trying and hope that if not this year, then maybe next year x

  • Just back from a weekend in Eindhoven and saw the Swifts. Now waiting for them to arrive in the uk x

  • First sighting of two swifts today 06/05/17.  Hopefully they are two that nest in my eaves.  Normally I have three nesting sights did have four but the starlings pinched one.

    Will keep you posted as to how many nest this year.

  • Great article Mark and we have been looking out for "our Swifts" for the past few days, as they arrived late April, last year. RSPB Swift box installed this year, with camera, in the hope that they use our house as their uk home as well as our neighbour's house. Will keep you posted x

  • Great article and a superb bird!  I am in the process of gathering some volunteers in my town to survey the Swifts when they arrive, and hope to use the information to make our town a Swift Town!  Will need lots of help and advice but i will have a go!

  • Thank you so much!

    Glad you enjoyed it. I was hoping to see my first swift of the year yesterday evening at my local patch of Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire where there were hundreds of swallows and house martins, but no joy yet.

  • What a fabulous article. I learnt so much Love these little birds and we always watch for their return. Thank you