Oxford Swift City Project Takes Flight

In May 2017 Oxford became England’s first “Swift City”. The Oxford Swift City project team is made up of several local partners including the Department’s Director of the Environmental Survey Techniques programme Jocelyne Hughes, the RSPB, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, among others. 

This exciting two-year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), hopes to improve the outlook for swifts in Oxford by raising local awareness of the many ways we can help these vulnerable birds.

Swifts are truly Olympian birds; landing only to breed, they can fly at least 560 miles a day gathering food – sleeping, eating and even mating on the wing. Swifts spend their winters in Africa south of the Sahara, where they follow the rains to take advantage of rapid changes in insect populations.

In summer, having travelled thousands of miles, they spend approximately 120 days in Europe to mate and rear their young.

They rely on humans for their survival, nesting almost exclusively in urban areas. But the swift faces an uncertain future. Numbers in the UK have fallen.

Declining population

According to the RSPB, swifts are in trouble. Their breeding numbers plummeted by 47 per cent between 1995-2014, making them an amber-listed species on the list of Birds of Conservation Concern.

One possible cause of the swifts’ decline may be that, as old buildings are renovated and new ones go up, they do not include enough spaces for the birds to nest. To address this, the Oxford Swift City project will conduct extensive research into present swift populations in Oxford, and use this information to work closely with builders and planners to maintain and incorporate nest sites in the city’s infrastructure.

Swift's food sources are also problematic. Insect numbers generally are down, due to pesticide use and habitat destruction, mainly of of wildflowers. Swifts eat a variety of airborne insects, including flying ants, mosquitoes, hoverflies and small beetles. Rather poetically, swifts drink by catching raindrops in the air – or by flying low over water, skimming a mouthful from the surface.

For the benefit of a robust insect population in support of swift colonies, the RSPB recommends less mowing – particularly of motorway verges.

Swifts in Oxford

In Oxford, the University's Museum of Natural History is the ‘des res’ for swifts. Its high tower is in near-darkness, which is what swifts crave. The numbers, though in decline, have seen a small rebound. There were 144 chicks in 2006, only 14 chicks in 2012 - but the numbers have been rising slowing since, into the mid thirties.

Lucy Hyde, Oxford Swift City Project Officer, said: “The launch of the Oxford Swift City project marks an important new chapter for our city’s swifts. This wonderful community project will provide local residents with a great opportunity to not only learn more about this fun, iconic bird, but to take action themselves to help give swifts a home in Oxford. Whether it’s planting wildflowers in your garden, putting up a swift nestbox or recording a swift sighting, there are lots of ways for residents to get involved.” 

Chris Jarvis, Education Officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said: “As the site of the longest-running continuous study of swifts in the world we're thrilled to be part of the Oxford Swift City project. The project will help us to deliver educational and public programmes that celebrate our iconic summer visitors and help to encourage people in Oxford to get involved in conserving and studying these beautiful birds.”

Learn more

Listen to an Oxford Swift City podcast on the RSPB website, featuring Dr Jocelyne Hughes:  (If you get a warning at the bottom of the screen, click on ‘show all content’ to make the recording visible on the page. It would be great to circulate this a bit if possible.)

View a series of slides prepared by Jocelyne that show you how and where swifts nest. 

Check out the live Swifts Webcam, and monitor a nest of chicks in the Museum of Natural History’s tower 

Visit the Action for Swifts website for many resources, including instructions on how to build a nest box, and a downloadable swift 'call' to help attract swifts to your new nesting box. 

The RSPB's 'create a high home for swifts' page also has nest box instructions

Get involved

Those in the Oxford community are vital to the success of the Swift City project, and you can get involved in a variety of ways. Please contact oxfordswiftcity@rspb.org.uk for more information.

Volunteers are needed to help monitor swift numbers by taking part in ‘Swift Surveys’, starting in May – there’s still time to sign up to help if you would like to join in! Each volunteer surveys a 500x500m square in their neighbourhood, within the Oxford City Council boundary, two evenings a month during May, June and July. We provide all the information and resources you need. All ages welcome. This is a great opportunity to get outdoors and connect with nature, whilst assisting with invaluable conservation research. Email oxfordswiftcity@rspb.org.uk for more information



Published 29 June 2017