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Swifts in Dry Drayton


The swift summer of 2017.  Update 9th August 2017 by Rowena Baxter

When the regular breeding birds arrived in early May the weather was cool and often cloudy.  They came and went from their nests quietly and, if we hadn't been watching, we wouldn't have noticed them.  By the end of May the weather had warmed and we started to see much larger parties swooping and screaming around the houses.  June and early July were mostly perfect weather for swifts and their numbers increased. The maximum number of swifts seen in the sky around Pettitts Close at any one time in mid-July was 30+, with stunning Red-Arrow-like fly-pasts.  This success was entirely down to the warm weather at the peak of the breeding season, which encouraged the emergence of large numbers of aphids and other aerial insects. There was fierce competition and fighting for empty nest boxes amongst the younger non-breeding birds who also challenged the breeders for their nesting boxes, causing the death of at least one chick caught in up the fray at the end of June.  Possibly the ample supply of food may have caused a few 2-3 year old non-breeding birds to come into breeding condition a year early, and to lay eggs very late in the season in at least two of the spare nest boxes.  Although most of the breeding birds had completed their task by early August and have now left, as have their offspring, those two nests still contain chicks which are less than a fortnight old, as I write on 8 August.  They will not be ready to fledge until mid-September. The season has once again turned cool and damp, and we are keeping fingers crossed that the supply of aerial insects is maintained enough to see these late babies successfully off to Africa.

The number of chicks fledged from Pettitts Close up until 8 August was at least 16, up on last year, and there are probably 4 more still in the nest.   Quite a few of the remaining empty boxes have had swifts roosting in them, indicating that those birds will be back to breed next year, so it would be great to put up more boxes in the village to enable this thriving colony to expand.


(Ed's note - swifts fly at over 60 mph and are incredibly difficult to photograph. We are most grateful for permission to use the photos below by Val Perrin and Clive Cooper - and if you listen carefully you just might imagine you can still hear a swift passing)


Some of the 2017 visitors


More summer visitors 2017


A 2017 swiftlet


Swifts in Pettitts Close 2017, the above three photos by Val Perrin


2017 Swifts


entrance to internal nesting box


2017 swifts in the air and at the entrance to an internal nesting box, two photos by Clive Cooper


A SWIFT RETURN; A CONSERVATION INITIATIVE - Update July 2017 by Mike Clydesdale

Swifts, with their black silhouettes and scimitar shaped wings, are the iconic birds of the Summer. Their acrobatic displays and screaming calls, as they feast on airborne insects and even mate, are unique. Arriving in early May with the majority departing before the end of August, their stay is short but still time for each pair to breed and raise one or two young. 

Swifts are generally long lived (7-10 years is normal, but some have lived to more than 15) and migrate some 11000km to south east Africa for the winter months, essentially following their food; flying insects.

Swifts, like many migratory birds, have suffered a steep decline in their numbers over the past two decades. The main reason for this change have been the loss of suitable nest sites (modern houses have fewer gaps in the eaves). Worldwide there has been a concerted effort to provide nest spaces to help swifts breed. Conservation is neither cheap nor quick to show results, it is a long term commitment. For example, in Logan Meadows reserve in Cambridge a swift tower with more than 200 nest boxes was constructed in 2011 at a cost of £35000. Swifts took up residence in 2014. More recently some new houses have been built in Cambourne with nest cavities in external.

Dry Drayton has not missed out on this conservation initiative.

About 10 years ago, Rowena Baxter, of  Pettitts Close, rose to the challenge of helping the swifts by installing nest boxes. To encourage swifts to the area, taped music (actually the sound of screaming swifts!) was played in early Summer. This worked and swifts began to visit the boxes, eventually breeding successfully. Several neighbours joined the project and currently more than 25 breeding spaces, mainly external nest boxes, have been provided.

From small beginnings it is believed that about 10 youngsters fledged in 2016. With perhaps up to 25 swifts now in the Close, it is hoped that this year over 16 fledglings will launch their migratory life. Additionally, there has been an encouraging increase in the number of non-breeding swifts. These birds, up to 4 years old, are commonly known as bangers since they tend to bang into boxes as part of their prospecting for suitable future nest sites. Hopefully these birds will return to breed in the next few years, so we need to have enough accommodation for them!

The presence of swifts is exciting. Everyone in the Close eagerly looks out for the arrival of our swift colony and wants to know how many boxes are occupied and how many youngsters have fledged. The swifts' acrobatic skills, as they swoop into the boxes, are spectacular, so come along and enjoy the display in July before they migrate.

If you would like to encourage more swifts to the village and support this conservation initiative, why not consider putting up a couple of boxes. Details of suitable boxes (a local supplier is available) and their siting can be found on-line or have a word with Rowena Baxter or Michael Clydesdale


Picture of two swiftlets prior to fledging.
Two swiftlets prior to fledging.


Picture of mature swift leaving nest box.(note the different facial patterns)
Mature swift leaving nest box.(note the different facial patterns) 


Update - August 2015 - Rowena has written up the project so far on the Action For Swifts Blog:



The common swift (Apus apus) is a summer visitor to the British Isles, spending the majority of the year in sub-Saharan Africa.  They come to the UK (and Europe generally) to take advantage of the abundance of insects that are on the wing during our summer months, and to raise young.  Originally, before buildings were available, swifts probably nested in crevices in cliffs and holes in trees, but now they rely on us inadvertently providing nesting places in our homes and other buildings.


We have only very recently discovered where in Africa swifts spend the winter months.  A couple of years ago the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) captured some swifts and attached geolocators to them.  The information retrieved from the birds on their return has started to shed light on how swifts spend their time between August and April. It turns out they head for the equatorial areas, e.g. the Congo basin, but can move many hundreds of miles to take advantage of insect swarms.  Further information on this study can be found here: www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/swifts

Many of our summer migrant birds are declining, and much research is under way to try to find out why and whether we can do anything to reverse this trend. A third of British swifts have been lost since 1995 (BTO).  The reasons for this are not really known, but it is believed this is due partly to lack of, or removal of, nesting sites.  Swifts nest in holes in roofs, behind soffits, eaves and gutters.  Of course we don’t want holes in our roofs and these are gradually getting fewer as we re-roof and hermetically seal our dwellings.  Swifts are very nest-site faithful and if that nest-hole is blocked during re-roofing or other renovation works, they will find it hard to leave that site and look elsewhere.  So swifts need our help in providing artificial nest sites.  Ideally these should be built into the fabric of new buildings as can be seen in ‘The Swifts’ development in Fulbourn.  However, internal boxes can be retrofitted into existing buildings, and details can be found on the Action for Swifts website noted below, particularly under ‘architects and builders’.  The easiest method for the amateur is to put up nest boxes under eaves, and boxes can be purchased from most nestbox suppliers, e.g. NHBS or Vine House Farm, although they do tend to be rather expensive.

I had always thought of swifts as town birds, zooming around the streets in parties, screaming loudly.  It was one of the evocative city sounds of summer.  But in 2008 I noticed several swifts investigating the eaves of the houses in Pettitts Close.  Knowing that the denizens of Pettitts Close were unlikely to have holes in their houses suitable for breeding swifts, I contacted a friend in the Cambridge Bird Club who is an expert in swifts and co-founded the local group ‘Action for Swifts’.  He suggested I put up a swift box, or even better, two.  So later that summer, after the swifts had departed we fixed 2 boxes to our house, under the eaves.  I was also advised that to make it easier to attract swifts to our boxes, we should play swift calls in the daytime from mid-May to end of July when the swifts are here.  So in 2009 we set up a very basic CD system playing swift calls, close to the boxes.

We attracted swifts that very summer, they investigated the boxes, looked inside even, but it has taken another 5 years to achieve breeding in the boxes…a long story which I won’t detail here!  But suffice to say our neighbours have been very supportive and tolerant of the swift calls playing.  This year for the first time we have at least one pair breeding, maybe 2. Now we have swifts in Dry Drayton, it is likely that it would not take nearly so long to get swifts established in nearby sites, particularly in Pettitts Close, Pettitts Lane or Bakers Field.  They are stunning flyers and provide Pettitts Close with tremendous entertainment during the 3 months we welcome them as our guests.

Swifts need friends.  They are unobtrusive in their nesting habits, unlike house martins, sparrows and starlings which can be rather messy.  Additonally they ‘hoover’ up masses of small flying insects such as aphids.  Boxes should be sited on the N, E or W face of buildings, ideally under eaves, min. height about 5m, with a clear flight path in front. If you are interested in helping them, the website at: http://actionforswifts.blogspot.co.uk  is very useful with nestbox design and other advice.  A very simple nestbox design to go under horizontal eaves can be found at: http://actionforswifts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-simplest-diy-swift-nest-box.html


Feel free to contact me 01954 780913 if I can be of help.

Rowena Baxter

Swift Box, Pettitts Close

A swift entering our nest box


Addendum 2nd August 2014


The picture below, by Clive Cooper, shows two chicks in Rowena's nestbox

two young swifts in nest box


Addendum 18th August 2014


Rowena pointed out this interesting short film on nesting Swifts from Germany