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.

Unofficial bookclub no 2

Europe’s Birds,

by Rob Hume, Rob Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop, 640 pp, £20, Wild Guides & Princeton.

or ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

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A question. Do you have friends about whom you wonder sometimes why exactly you’re friends? I must confess I do. One of my closest friends is David Tipling the celebrated photographer with whom I worked on a book for ten years. Birds and People is still one of the favourite projects that I have completed in my career, partly because of collaborating with such a talented guy. The problem is he and I probably shouldn’t be friends! Because we agree on almost nothing.

And I’m not just talking politics here. Take any subject you like: the Queen, Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Manchester United, beefburgers, Coke Cola. On all of them we hold diametrically opposed views. In fact we disagree on so much that I once said to him half jokingly (we laugh a lot!) : ‘Matey, don’t ask me what I think of something. Ask yourself whether you like it or not and just assume I’ll be the opposite’. I should add he calls me ‘Matey’ and I him! It’s one of the things on which we are united.

A subject about which we have disagreed is field guides. Needless to say, David, a brilliant photographer to his fingertips, is a proponent of the photographic guide. I, on the other hand, have always loved illustrated field guides. I cherish the artwork in field guides and have always thought the capacity of the artist to arbitrarily include the details necessary for field identification – those subtleties that photographs so seldom once captured – have given illustrators an infallible advantage. These things are so silky; say, the relative length of the primaries, or the slight upward turn in a supercillium, or the patterning in the tertials, that only a painterly eye and hand can convey them.

My lifetime sequence for British bird books is as follows: The Observer’s Book of Birds, and then, from the age of 12, The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe by Bertel Bruun and Arthur Singer (1972). Next came what was familarly known as Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. The technical title was The Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East by Collins (from the age of 13 onwards). It was the subtitle and all those improbably wonderful, exotic African and Middle Eastern creatures like Dupont’s Lark and Grey Hypocolius that probably did more to change my world view and my life ambitions than any other field guide.

Next came a new generation of books with such beautiful artwork that you couldn’t imagine they would be bettered. I mean Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East by Christopher Helm in 1992 and then ‘Svensson’. The gold standard for the next generation, its full title is Collins Bird Guide (2nd Edition) The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom (Collins 1999.

What all of them have done, and do still, is inform our sightings with greater comparative understanding and ever more forensic detail on bird appearances and variation. In turn they fuel our ambitions for future obervations. These field guides – all of them, right back to The Observer’s Book of Birds – tell us how we should look and what to look for. In short, they help us see better. It is a great gift. Collectively they also provide a social history on the birding community and sequential measurement of how optical technology, such as that by Opticron who support these pages, have changed the way we observe.

All of the above I’ve come to appreciate slowly. What I never imagined is that I’d now come round to the idea that the future belongs to photographic guides. Even more difficult to say: I have to admit David Tipling is right. To put it another way: ‘Matey: I agree with you’.

The book that has changed the landcape, for me, is this astonishingly beautifully and technically masterful Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop of Wild Guides under the umbrella of Princeton Press £20.How to begin to capture the scale of their collective achievement? Well, it is a very big book, 640 pages long and 1.4kg (3lb in old money) in weight. This largeness is actually part of the reason for its overall quality. Not only is it roughly 200 pages longer than ‘Svensson’, but each page is a slightly larger canvas with roughly an extra 2cm of height and width. The space has given its creators lots of room to cover all the latest taxonomic changes and give each of 900 species its full due, using 4700 images to go into the details required for making a successful discrimination.

 Here is a family with which I often struggle. Divers. See one in summer on a loch and it is usually straightforward. But out on a choppy sea in winter, when they lose all that tell-tale colour, it is another matter. The beauty of these photographs is that they are able to do all the work I once credited only to illustrations: they capture the exact differences, but they do so with pictures of the actual living beast.

The sheer abundance of photographic images for Wild Guides to choose from – partly because the latest technology has brought decent images within the compass of many gifted amateurs – means that they can find pin-sharp pictures of hard-to-separate species in almost perfect analogue poses. And all can be placed in close proximity to the well-chosen words of a master of fieldguide prose, Mr Rob Hume. The combination is truly superb.

It is in the context of what is, for me, one of the most difficult-to-identify common bird families – the skuas – that you really see all the advantages of photographs and the finely honed text working in tandem. Skuas may be tricky, but having all the finer points of separation for your to pore over, really helps to get it straight in your head.

The various European species – Arctic, Pomarine, Long-tailed and Bonxie – have been minutely trawled in the separate species accounts. Then, for good measure, the authors have put together this hugely economical and information-packed double-page spread to allow you to digest the foregoing data in visual form. All of the necessary words are slotted into the previous pages. This, if you like, is both the icing on the cake AND the nitty gritty revision all in one space. It is a tour do force of digital organisation. The designers have really worked the whole book out in meticulous detail.    

Here’s a page I enjoyed partly because it celebrates a favourite family. Also the photos capture something which my beloved copy of Svensson doesn’t convey through its paintings. I’ve always thought Rook and Carrion Crow have a quite different flight profile. Usually they are instantly separable on a flight view alone because of it. The rook’s outer wingtips are more deeply and finely fingered and the hand (the outer section of the wing sits at an oblique angle to the inner portion). Together they make the whole wing look more like a backward-slanting paddle. Carrion crows, on the other hand, have straighter-winged flight profile. They lack the appearance of a finely fingered hand and the distinctly angled shape. Most of the time, at least.

Pointing out the clarification made by Europe’s Birds is not to denigrate the earlier book but to celebrate again the achievements of the new one. Not only is it a complete and integrated survey of all Europe’s birds and the challenges they pose in terms of identification, it is a beautiful object to have and peruse. And, yes, it has also made me realise that sometimes I’m wrong and my old friend is right.

It leaves me only to say, ‘Matey, I agree with you’. It would appear there are things we have in common. I’m pleased to think we can still be friends.

I include one last page so you can savour the way in which subtle features and sometime glaring differences are synthesised in one complex montage

If you would like to leave a comment for me on this or anything else, you can contact me here. To see what else I am upto and if you would like to join me for a writing course, a Derbyshire break or holiday then go back to my website.