A swift entering a nest behind a carved filigree stone screen in the Alhambra in Spain.
My friend Carolyn has been nagging me for about two years to write a blog post about Common Swift Apus apus (Fr. Martinet noir) conservation, so here it is.
Swifts flying around a courtyard in the Alhambra.
If you see a group of dark sickle shaped birds zooming around at rooftop level and screaming their heads off, you've got swifts. They arrive in central France just about now (Carolyn and I saw the first ones for this year on 15 April, in Amboise and Loches respectively) having overwintered in Africa, mainly in the Congo. They are incredibly fast and agile flyers, reaching speeds of up to 200 km per hour. Except for nesting, these birds spend all their lives on the wing -- eating, preening and drinking without a toe touching a tree, building or land.
In the sky over Loches.
The swifts have come to nest. They especially like nooks and crannies in multistorey buildings. They will slip behind cornices and up under gutters to take up residence in your roofspace. And therein lies a growing conservation problem, and the reason for Carolyn's campaign amongst her friends.
Swifts nesting behind the cornice of the Logis Royal in Loches.
With more and more buildings being renovated swifts are losing nesting places. As the open ends of canal (Roman) tiles are blocked up with mortar and the spaces between the tops of walls, rafters and roofs sealed off, the swifts are evicted or turned away. Traditional building practices taught that roof spaces should be ventilated, and in this area that means a gap between the roof and the top of the wall. But nowadays these gaps are stopped up to protect insulation from getting wet and specifically to stop animals gaining access to the roofspace and making a mess.
A swift heading for a nest in Loches.
This is bad news for swifts, which ironically, make very little mess (as opposed to the lookalike but completely unrelated swallows and martins, which it has to be said, lovely and welcome as they are in our garage, are poo machines!) Carolyn, who lives in Amboise, is hoping to set up an association to encourage local people to pay more attention to their swifts and provide nest boxes and generally behave in as swift-friendly a manner as possible. Many people are like us and look forward to a season of watching swifts hurtle around the sky. It would be a great loss if they disappeared forever because there were insufficient nesting holes left.
Nest boxes under the eaves of a house in Amboise. Unfortunately these are occupied by sparrows, but the swifts nested last year between the rafters near the downpipe.
Newly placed boxes, not ideally positioned, but pragmatic. The attic behind them houses a CD player to broadcast swift calls to entice the birds in.
We have wonderful memories of watching the swifts and bats hunting insects at dusk in Granada and in Loches. As well as nest spaces these charismatic birds need an abundance of flying insects to eat.
It's probably too late to put up a nest box this year if you want it to be used this summer, but you can put up nest boxes at any time. A nest box put up now may be discovered next year. Ready made boxes cost about €30 each and can be bought online from various suppliers (search for 'nichoirs martinet noir' in France) or you can make your own. There are lots of instructions on the internet.
We haven't put any up yet as I didn't think we had anywhere suitable and I thought they would just be taken over by sparrows weeks before the swifts arrived. However, seeing the ones above in an attic window I have an idea for placing them in our barn upper windows. I will also use some sort of door to block off access until just before the swifts arrive, to prevent sparrow squatting. That is a big advantage of the attic window position, because they are reachable for opening or closing such a door.