A few minutes ago, as I write, four swifts raced past my bedroom window acknowledging, with a short screech, the sound of the attraction calls I play outside my house from the first week of May. They were a welcome sight as, up to now, very few breeding pairs of swifts have arrived in Yorkshire and only a few swifts have been seen feeding over wetlands. 

Perhaps these birds are somehow aware of the climatic chaos we’re experiencing at the moment. We’ve had a cold, wet April and May. This has been caused by high pressure in Greenland pushing the jet stream further south of the Atlantic than it usually is at this time of year. Cold air is being drawn towards us from the Arctic and low pressure has brought unstable conditions. All of this adds up to the worst situation for birds relying on aerial plankton, the tiny insects in the air that swifts, swallows and martins feed upon during flight. Swallows and martins (not related to swifts) have been bombarded by storms, hail, rain and wind since their arrival in March. They will be struggling to reach peak breeding condition after such a bad start to their season and consequently, breeding may be delayed. 

■ Swallow

Swifts begin to arrive in late April and usually return to their nesting sites in the first week of May in Yorkshire. So far very few have arrived back and swift enthusiasts are watching daily counts at European migration spots in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. At the time of writing, they have recorded about 20-30% of the number of swifts seen in 2020 during the same time period. This can be a very worrying statistic given the terrible swift season we had in the north last year or it could be just that they are remaining in areas where food is plenty while conditions improve. Time will tell. I hope it’s the later because our swifts, swallows and martins are already in big trouble after habitat destruction on a grand scale. 

All these birds use man-made structures to nest. Swifts nest under the eaves of houses or in cracks and crevices of old industrial buildings. Swallows nest inside barns or open structures and house martins glue their mud nests onto the outside of buildings. Whole colonies are being lost every year due to home improvements, demolition, barn conversions or, in the case of house martins, wilful removal of nests. The problem for swifts is that building surveys are usually done outside the short breeding season and established colonies are lost after soffits and boards, reroofing and re-guttering work has been done. Swifts, swallows and house martins are faithful to their nest sites and, with very few alternatives available, many adult birds are prevented from breeding each year. Ironically, the thousands of new homes that are being built have no access for these birds. 

■ House Martin chick

So, what can we do and how can you become a champion for these species? The simplest way you can help is by attracting more insects into your garden. Dig a pond or make a small water feature in your garden by collecting rainwater. Plant native British plants or build a bug hotel. You will then be providing lots of essential food for passing swifts, swallows and martins. You can also provide a home for these species by installing artificial swift nest boxes or house martin and swallow nests and playing attraction calls. If you already have these species, protect them when carrying out repairs to your home. Seek advice from an expert in good time before organising any building work. With careful planning your birds will return and nest successfully again. 

There is a nationwide network of experts led by the Swift Conservation Society www.swift-conservation.org and Action for Swifts www.actionforswifts.blogspot.co.uk. You can also get support and advice from us at leeds.swifts@gmail.com and we can also put you in touch with your nearest group.

Linda Jenkinson teaches people about birds in and around Leeds. For details of indoor and outdoor classes email linda@startbirding.co.uk or call 07778 768719. Visit www.startbirding.co.uk or Start Birding on Facebook and Twitter 


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