With the start of summer approaching we are gearing up to welcome swifts back to Edinburgh, where we have been working over the winter to create a sanctuary for swifts. Edinburgh Swift City Project Officer Katie O'Neill tells us what we can do to welcome them back.

The wonderful wee swifts have now left the skies above the rainforests of the Congo and are on their way north. The map below shows the migration route of a swift ‘A320’, who was tagged with a geolocator in 2010. Following the journey of A320, she first passed over Angola, crossed the Atlantic and spent two weeks above Liberia. Here she fuelled up on a protein rich diet of insects before embarking on the final leg home, travelling 5,000 km in only five days! For swifts hatched in Edinburgh, this is where they will return to find a mate and raise their own young. Adult swifts are loyal to a nesting site and juveniles nesting for the first time (at 2-3 years of age) will attempt to find a nesting site close to their parents. This is known a natal nesting.

Map showing the migration route of swifts

Map credit: BTO

Why are we creating a swift sanctuary in Edinburgh?

The swift evolved 60 million years ago, about the time the Tyrannosaurus rex died out (you can tell they’re from this era when you see new-born swiftlets.). The common swift (Apus apus) is our fastest recorded bird at level height, and in local folklore they carry an uplifting and hopeful symbolism of summer’s return. Unfortunately, the UK’s swift population has declined 58% in a 23-year period between 1995-2018. Research is underway to identify possible factors in this decline. While the impact of climate change on swift populations is still unclear, the loss of swift nest sites in the roofs of buildings does appear to be at least partly responsible. Demolition or renovation of old buildings, and installation of roof insulation can result in the loss of existing swift nest sites. With funding from the ScottishPower Foundation, the RSPB Edinburgh Swift City Project aims to raise awareness about these wonderful birds, and protect and enhance swift populations in the city (and beyond).

Cookie with the shape of a swift pushed in

What final few preparations can we make now for swifts returning in May?

  • Spread awareness about the marvel of swifts. Learn a fun fact about them and make swift biscuits to celebrate their return in May. You can get a swift biscuit cutter online.
  • Plant native wildflower seeds to improve the local insect populations and enhance swift’s food supply.
  • Provide a home for swifts. Make your own swift nest box – Instructions here or watch a pre-recorded workshop with Edinburgh Tool Library here. Alternatively, you can purchase a premade one here. Fitting instructions and ecological considerations are detailed here.
  • Check if swifts nested near you last year, using Swift Mapper (select yellow nest icons). These sites are extremely important. If swifts recently nested on your building, they will return there. If you can, please avoid roofing/chimney/construction work during the main bird nesting season (April – August). Wild birds and their nests are legally protected (while the nest is being used) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Amended) and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.


Upcoming swift events

  • Join us for our Swift Survey Training on Tuesday 20th May 7-9pm to learn how to use Swift Mapper, and how to lead surveys with your friends and family. Email katie.oneill@rspb.org.uk to receive the zoom link. If you cannot make this, you can watch videos here on how to use Swift Mapper.
  • Join us for a Nature connection & swift survey workshop via Salisbury centre Sunday 2nd May 2-4pm. We will try some example Nature prescriptions and do a swift survey. See event details & to sign up here.
  • The Edinburgh Swift Local Group was established in January 2021. They will be making a big announcement relevant to people of all ages on the 2nd May (Dawn Chorus Day!). Follow @EdinburghSwifts on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook to stay tuned.