As August begins, Portadown will be waving farewell to some of its most mysterious and impressive local residents – the Common Swift.
True masters of the art of flight, Swifts are the most highly developed aerial birds in Europe. They have long, curved, narrow wings on a small, streamlined body, making them look like a flying boomerang, and permitting them to take the title of sixth fastest bird in the world, with a record top speed of 171kmph!
They never land on the ground or on branches, preferring to keep aloft at all times; they feed, drink, preen, and mate in the air, and even sleep at night while flying very high above the ground. This fact means that, because Swifts do not breed until they are four years old, many of them will fly non-stop for three years without ever landing on solid ground.
Born and raised in Portadown, I always took the abundance of Swifts in town for granted, as I’m sure most of us do. But we shouldn’t. These fantastic birds appear at the end of April and in May; forget Swallows – these are the true heralds of summer! They celebrate their arrival with large social groups of birds swooping low among buildings in playful formation flight, screaming in exuberance, and re-finding their nests and mates, which they haven’t seen for the past nine months. After all, they have spent that time (our autumn and winter) in equatorial and southern Africa, soaring for thousands of miles over deserts, rainforests, high mountains, elephants, giraffes; through tropical storms and baking hot sun, and meeting up with other swifts which have migrated from as far as China. A Swift will make this journey every year for its 20-year lifespan. The Swift is truly one of the most well-travelled and endurable birds to grace the skies above Northern Ireland.
Swifts nest in small crevices in buildings, which closely imitate their natural nest sites - cracks in cliffs and holes in ancient trees - which are now rarely found in Northern Ireland. This is why the Swift populations of the British Isles are almost exclusively urban, with the unmelodic, but not unpleasant, sound of screaming Swifts on a summer evening, being closely associated with town centres and suburbs.
Almost every town and village in Northern Ireland has its own colony of breeding Swifts, but when it comes to sheer numbers, Portadown takes the award for the largest population. There are several important sub-colonies around town, including Church Street and High Street; Sheridan Green and Sandringham on the Gilford Road; Westland Road and Hartfield Square; the south Garvaghy Road and Park Road by the train station; Carrickblacker Avenue and Goban Street; Union Street, and Thomas Street. These, and others, are all excellent places to view Swifts at close range. Nest surveys, so far, have counted 130 nests in the whole of Portadown, with around 200 nests predicted in total. This is an enormous number of breeding birds and makes Portadown that much more special as far as Swifts are concerned.
Special, because Swifts are in real trouble. Over the entire UK, their population has declined by over 60 per cent in the last few decades, giving a real cause for concern about the future of this bird. There are a couple of possible reasons for this crash in population; use of pesticides in the countryside may have reduced the number of flying insects in the atmosphere, on which the swifts heavily depend on for food. However, it is most likely that the main problem for Swifts in Northern Ireland is the alarming rate at which nest sites are being lost. Many swifts nest in old buildings, crumbling brickwork, under loose tiles, in gaps in open eaves, and in crevices behind guttering. Unfortunately for the Swifts, these little gaps and crevices tend to be blocked up or lost when roofing work is done on buildings, new gutters are put in place, or when old buildings are demolished. For example, Antrim has lost around half of its breeding swifts due to roof repairs and demolishment. Not only is this detrimental to the overall population of the birds, but it is also very distressing for the Swifts that have been nesting for many years in a hole that is suddenly not there; they will often batter themselves tirelessly against a wall or roof where their nest was, determined to get in.
Fortunately, it is easy to help the Swifts. Take the time to watch out for the impressive early morning and evening displays low around the roofs of buildings from the young non-breeding birds, which are looking for nests, in the last couple of weeks before they leave for Africa – they are an unforgettable experience, especially when a group of them whizz past your head, screaming, at 50 miles an hour! If you live in an area where these birds nest please consider putting up swift nesting boxes on your house. Swifts are not messy birds, and the nest boxes can be designed to prevent any droppings falling on the ground below. You will be providing the swifts with a safe haven in which to nest year after year without danger of losing the nest site, and so helping to curb the alarming population decline which they are experiencing. To find out more about swifts in Northern Ireland and how to help them, visit www.saveourswifts.co.uk .
Portadown has one of the most important swift populations in Northern Ireland. The sound of screams from the sky in summer will very soon be over – until next spring at least. If we take action for these incredible birds, we can ensure that the screaming does not fall silent for ever.