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Summer visitor making a swift exit

Last modified: 22 June 2009

Swift over houses at sunset

Disappearing into the sunset: one of Britain's best-loved birds is making a swift exit.

Image: Nigel Blake

You know summer has arrived when you see swifts speeding through the air, screaming their heads off and swooping into crevices in buildings.

But fewer and fewer of us are enjoying this spectacle as we have discovered that the swift is in serious trouble.

Swift numbers have declined by 47% in the last ten years. And for the first time, the summer migrant has been added to the amber list meaning it is of serious conservation concern.

A major cause of this decline is believed to be the loss of nest sites through building improvement or demolition. They nest almost exclusively on buildings, so they really need our help.

We're launching a nationwide search to identify where swifts are still seen and could be nesting.

"The fact they are declining so rapidly is of huge concern, which is why we’re asking people to help us find out where they are so we can focus our efforts in the right place."


Swifts pair for life and return to the same nest site each spring. Their nests are located high up in the roof spaces under the eaves of old buildings in particular, and renovation, repair or demolition work is leaving many of them homeless.

We're appealing to us all to look out for low-level screaming groups of swifts, a good sign they are breeding nearby, or where we have seen swifts nesting – perhaps entering a roof or hole in the building. Please report any sightings ot us. The best time to look is around dusk on a warm, still evening.

Once we have discovered more about where swifts are found we will focus our conservation efforts in areas where they are commonly seen and work with the building industry to help birds in buildings.

Simple measures

We're also suggesting a number of simple measures that could help the fast dwindling swift population.

1.      It is crucial to leave any existing nest sites undisturbed where possible. Swifts will use the same nest sites again and again.

2.      If you do need to carry out repair work on your roof or faschias and soffits for example, make new nest access holes to match the old ones at exactly the same spot.

3.      If you are building a new house, you could create some internal nest spaces at the design stage.

4.      If you are unable to do any of these, the other alternative is to fit a custom-made swift box.

A great privilege

Sarah Niemann, RSPB Species Recovery Officer says: “Sharing your house with swifts is a great privilege. They are not obtrusive at all, in fact they make perfect, quiet neighbours. They build their nests right next to the entrance hole so they don’t get into your roof space and they cause no damage.

“The fact they are declining so rapidly is of huge concern to the RSPB, which is why we’re asking people to help us find out where they are so we can focus our efforts in the right place.

“If you see or hear swifts screaming at rooftop level or slipping into holes please tell us!”

Swifts are dark brown but often look black against the sky. Their wings are long and narrow and their tail slightly forked, but not as much as a swallow’s. They have a piercing, screaming call and nest in colonies which makes it appear even louder.

A life on the wing

Swifts spend their life almost entirely on the wing and even feed, sleep and mate in flight. They feed exclusively on insects and only come to land when nesting.

They hunt for insects over a wide area and range of habitats from meadows, open water and over woods to the skies above towns and cities. An abundant supply of insects is critical for their survival. Parent swifts collect lots of insects to take back to their chicks – up to 1,000 at once which make a big bulge in their throat. When they have chicks to feed, swifts can gather as many as 100,000 insects a day.

Various voluntary groups are also working with us on the swift search, including Swift Conservation, Concern for Swifts (Scotland) and Northern Swift Groups.

Watch the video

Swifts are declining rapidly across the UK. The RSPB's Gemma Rogers explains how we can all help swifts, while long-time swift fan Lindy Gorton recounts what it's like to share her life with the devil bird.

How you can help

Swifts need our help! We need you to let us know where they are