Red Shift: Helping House Martins and Swifts in their time of need?

Last month we got official confirmation about the new national status of swifts and house martins (above) in Britain. Although anyone over 40 years old with even the slighest interest in nature will have watched these glorious summer birds become less and less common. Places where they used to breed have increasingly fallen silent. Now we have the facts in black and white, or perhaps in scarlet letters. Because both have been declared red-list species in Britain and at risk of extinction, with swifts having fallen by 58% and the martin by 57% since 1995.

The grim background to this story is that 70 species, about double the number previously red-listed in 1996, have now been placed in this highest category of threat. Just as worrying is that a further 103 birds are on the amber list. Why does that matter? Well until recently swift and house martin were amber-listed birds also. The red and amber lists suggest that there are troubling population trends for three-quarters of all British birds. Just a quarter of our avifauna has a positive environmental status with a green listing.

The central issue accounting for losses of swifts and house martins is probably revealed in the Krefeld report, a German document that shows how insects have declined in that country by 75 per cent in the last 40 years. Most signficant is that these changes came not in the wastelands of industrialised farming but from within the country’s protected wildlife network. Insect biomass is directly implicated in the losses of insectivorous birds. Why would we be surprised that 3.2 billion birds have vanished from North American skies and now 600 million from Europe over the same period? These are precisely the areas with the longest history of intensive agricultural use of insect poisons. (let’s call a spade a spade here: they are not ‘pesticides’, they kill so-called ‘pests’ and everything else.) Here’s a swift (below) with its throat bulging with 300-1000 insects that it will feed to its chicks.

Below is a heart-warming scene involving house martins en masse as they gather nest-making materials. It was taken in northern Greece, where house martins are still in extremely good numbers, but there is something else in the image that may help to explain why this little pied mouse has plunged so dramatically in Britain. Mud. House martins need it to make their nests and you invariably require livestock, primarily cattle, to create mud. That is exactly what you see in the Greek shot. Otherwise the birds use industrial and agricultural sites or natural places – river banks and temporary puddles – in order to collect their essential pellet-sized building materials. My guess is that a mud shortage is a lesser but significant factor in UK house martin declines.

There is a third factor in the losses of house martins and swifts and this is one we can all do something about. Both birds originally would have used a range of natural nest sites – caves and cliffs or treeholes – but at differing times in the history of civilisation, these two switched to nesting above our heads in roofs. (Below is an original house-martin nest-site on the chalk cliffs at Flamborough and you can read my fuller post and Guardian pieces here and here).

But things have changed dramatically in the last half century. A new requirement for higher levels of insulation and changes in construction materials have probably worked against both birds, but especially swifts, which need access holes in our roofs. Our increasingly tidy-minded habits have probably played a further part in evicting house martins. I have actually seen people knock nests down, which is illegal, or hanging decorative Xmas-type lights permanently on the gutters in an attempt to deter the birds from building, which is probably legal but appallingly uncaring. Loss of nest sites by both birds is surely a major factor in their declines.

The sad disappearance of these two magnificent creatures has mercifully not gone unnoticed. And there are many things that anyone can do. I am going to list a few of the positive ways in which people can and do help house martins and swifts.

There is, for example, a wonderful group called House Martin Conservation UK and Ireland. You can find more about their work on the website here and on Facebook here. Both links give you access to an entire community of friendly people and brilliant ideas about what to do. House martins need an eave so that they can usually glue the mud cup both to the back wall and also to a horizontal surface at 90 degrees to vertical. But you can buy ready-made cups that sit on boards and slot into exactly that space. My picture of Millers’ Dale station shows that success is not guaranteed. The bird still often prefer their own homemade versions. House martins have thousands of years of history of using our sites but building their own nests. Switching to the ready-made alternatives may take a little time, so try to be patient.

House Martins are also highly communal and like to be with friends. Here is a picture recently taken at Castro Verde in Portugal which shows how they love to be with one another. So, if you have success with luring a single pair into your purpose-built box then perhaps put out others nearby. One house martin pair is great, but 2 or more is better still.

The ready-built nests are now made by a range of manufacturers at relatively small cost. My personal favourite manufacturer in our area is Peak Boxes, which is constantly innovating on new ways to encourage birds and to create nesting places for martins and swifts, and for a whole suite of other hole-using species. Here is their latest idea for a socially minded creature like house martin, a tower block complete with more than a dozen nests at the equally brilliant rewilding Derbyshire farm Sunart Fields run by Geoff and Rachel Evatt. Link here.

Swifts are similarly adapting to human-made alternative nest-sites. We have one of Peak Boxes’ seven-unit apex nest-sites for swifts, so far, it must be said, with imperfect success for the target bird. The best means of luring swifts to new boxes is to play tape-recordings of their social calls. Most of the manufacturers, such as Peak Boxes, sell these sound systems. And they have led to startling successes, sometimes with swifts moving into freshly erected boxes within hours. The unit structures at Peak Boxes have been designed after decades of research by swift aficionados like Mark and Jane Glanville.

The key point to make is that you don’t need a multi-nest box to have an impact. A single occupied site makes a difference and the other possibility is to work with neighbours to develop a community project. A real long-term solution would be if all new-built properties came with special nest bricks for sparrows, starlings, martins and swifts so that this traditional roof-nesting bird suite were accommodated at source. The groups often campaign for these outcomes.

There is a comparable suite of active swift groups which can help with advice and contacts. There is the pioneering specialist collective Swift Conservation which has a website here. There is another Facebook equivalent with many members called Save our Swifts, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins. If you use social media their dedicated page is here. All of the mainstream conservation organisations have page or groups dedicated to the birds and there are a number of other county-based collectives. We have a fabulous example locally run by volunteer Nick Brown for the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust here. And in Buxton itself we have a wildlife group that is partly dedicated to counting and censusing the local swift population. Email if you would like to know more.

One of the enormous pleasures of helping these two magnificent birds it the thought that action taken on your own doorstep could have direct consequences over the forests of the Congo or in the skies above South Africa. For they are truly world-wrapping migrants. They make our planet a single place and the whole world one community.

18 Comments on “Red Shift: Helping House Martins and Swifts in their time of need?

  1. We have a largist colony of HM at our Equestrian centre in East London has maximised at over 50 nests but this last year only about 30 pairs returned late and mostly were single brooded so don’t bode well for the future of this site. Airborne food is the key!

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    • Thanks Chris almost certainly true I suspect. Airborne food is the key. We are destroying the very basis of the food chain with our insect losses. But loss of nest sites may be a factor.

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  2. So heart achingly sad Mark. Swift and House Martin on the Red List should be headline news. I fear those who care are almost as rare as wildflower meadows.

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    • I know that seems to be the riff i am encountering all the time Paul. We hear all this bad news but not enough care to change things. As Juliet Vickery put it so eloquently on C4 News. If not now when? What has to happen to trigger a true. response?

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    • I run a swift conservation group which i work at 24/7 we also work with HMs and swallows. There are now over 100 swift conservation groups throughout the UK alone so there ARE people out there who care with passion BUT how do we change the way we farm, the pesticide use, the building industry??? We can only do our best. #huntlyswiftgroup

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    • Thanks Carolyn well I leave Paul to answer for himself. But I don’t think he intended any criticism of people working so hard for birds, such as you. Your wider question on how do we get people to realise that the central issues are agriculture and construction industries in their entirety? We’ll v good question. I have some answers embedded in my forthcoming book One Midsummer’s Day which is about swifts. I hope to be able to talk about these issues as I do speaking events on the book.

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      • Thanks Mark and no offence taken by Pauls comment i just felt that i should speak up for myself and many others doing their utmost to help the situation. I look forward to the book!

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  3. I think that neonicotinoids are to blame. These highly poisonous insecticides are used liberally throughout east and south-east Britain (and the world) on crops that do not produce nectar such as sugar beet, maize and all species of grain plants. They are mainly applied as a seed dressing and act systemically. 95% is saod to wash or blow off the seed into the earth where it finds its way into hedgerows and ditches, eventually into rivers. Consumption of just 3 nanograms kills the insect ingesting its.
    I never reall understand why there is not a campaign by RSPB and other bird conservation groups to get this problem investigated and have these deadly insect toxins removed from our fields. A 50% loss of small birds should not be tolerated.
    I wrote about not seeing any swallows over wheat and barley fields in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards Mike Harding wrote this poem about the problem –
    “ One Swallow

    Remember how you’d drive at night in summers past
    Through fogs and mists of midges,
    Blizzards of fat bugs, snowstorms of moths
    All melting on the windscreen glass?
    Long, hot, country miles, you’d drive
    Dry eyed and squinting out into the dark, cursing,
    The windscreen frosted with their last moments,
    The wipers useless, washer water gone.
    You’d get back home to find the hurl and heft
    And spatter, the great smears of death,
    The legions lost, all dashed and hurtled to their end –
    Guts, brains and wings, thorax and antennae –
    Pulped into a patina you’d have to soap and scour away.

    But Death comes easy for them now, no battering
    Oblivion at seventy miles an hour, head on,
    Just the toxic rain of money slathered across
    The meadows hills and downs.
    One swallow makes a summer now;
    Soon she’ll be gone too with the bees,
    The birdsong and the riotous great clamour
    That once welcomed every dawn.
    And, as we face each silent year
    And see the dustbowl fells and fields,
    We’ll weep for what we all have lost:
    For clouds of midges, nights alive with moths,
    The scimitars of swallows, martins, swifts,
    The wrens and sparrows, nightingales and jays
    And the chanting birds that carolled once
    All across those golden, summer days.

    Mike Harding”

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    • i wd broaden it to say 70 years of insect poison (i am starting to refuse to call them ‘pesticides’) use has to be a central factor. Dick. You are almost certainly correct.

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    • Totally agree – this should not be tolerated. The RSPB seem to refuse to accept or admit that global insect decline actually DOES or is having an affect on our insectivorous birds. They say it is still being looked into. In my opinion we dont need to wait for the scientific facts to be proven and even then we wont pay attention, the proof is in front of us all. Anyone can see it. Maybe they think the decline in insect eating birds has conveniently fallen in line with the decline in insects therefore there is still enough (and the diversity?) to go around!!!!!! I think this is a huge failing on behalf of the RSPB and other large groups with sway. They also failed to push for protection of nsts and nesting sites whilst swifts, swallows and martins (urban reliant species) are in their wintering grounds when we know FACT that they come back to these sites and in the case of swift, do not easily relocate. Failing number 2. Quite shameful.

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  4. So sad Mark. Swift and House Martin on the Red List should provoke public outrage. The initiatives you mention to try and help these birds are fantastic. But I fear most people do not care . l once took Swift and House Martin for granted but I now try to savour each encounter .

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    • There are many small groups doing all they can. My group in Aberdeenshire is small and voluntary and for me 24/7 and in four years we have made a huge impact i am proud to say but even for all that i don’t think we can do this big enough or quickly enough when up against a government which fails time and again to value the importance of our natural world and fails to understand the interconnection within the natural world and how we and mother nature are at breaking point but still nothing is done. I am surrounded by farmland and bad land management which is allowed year aftr year to continue. I feel i am drowning in this fight but i will continue till i drop and those who care are the same. Without HUGE HUGE change from governments UK and globally i fear the worst. Cally. Huntly & District Swift Group

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      • well done Cally for your good work and keep it up. Yes our governments are universally hopeless about nature and this is not a party political point. None of them get it or do enough and that has persisted since 1950. But you are the change you wish to see. Thank you

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  5. Great and timely article, thanks Mark. I’ve been fitting Swift boxes for the last few years in Sussex, helping with some community groups. We had one Peak Box that was occupied within weeks of being fitted, which is encouraging.

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  6. Great article mark. I am trying to persuade my partner to let me put up swift and house Martin boxes on the front of our house. Her objections mirror the doubts most people face. Namely, they make a mess on the paintwork, I haven’t seen any swifts nor house martins nesting in our street. Even though the street behind long had a sizeable community of Hm’s, and lastly I don’t think there are any swifts about to want a nest site. My biggest concern is one of the lack of insects. But as I remember the population studies I did at university the population of swifts and other predators means that the population of 8nsects should recover providing opportunities for restoring the predator numbers.

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    • No need to worry about swifts making a mess – they dont! Swifts are a differnt bird to swallows and martins. Why not put the nest boxes on the back of your house? You can use a call system to encourage them in as long as you are committed to giving them a long term home. Why not encourage house martins to nest on the back of your home. Not sure i understand why you need perspex. It may be an idea to swot up on the three different birds – they are quite different in their habits and requirements.

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  7. One final objection, the front of the house is facing the sun and it gets too hot. My feeling is the house faces west south west and the eaves over the balcony are quite deep so are in shade. I reckon as long as we keep the curtains of the window and door to the balcony closed during the season and protect the site from predator perches… then it should be ok. I’m sure they won’t be acpverse to a sheet of Perspex to protect the stonework. Tom

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