Katie O'Neill, RSPB Scotland Edinburgh Swift City Project Officer, tells us about the Edinburgh Swift City project and how you can get involved.

We’re making Edinburgh a Swift Sanctuary – and we need your help!

Swifts are ancient and fascinating birds. These amazing fliers diverged from other bird species around the same time Tyrannosaurus Rex died out, 65 million years ago!

Swifts spend at least ten months of the year flying non-stop. They eat, bathe, mate and even sleep on the wing! The other two months of the year, they nest and care for their chicks right here in Edinburgh and across the British Isles. Their return home at the start of May marks the coming of Summer, and they are often regarded as a symbol of hope in local folklore.

Built for serious speed and stamina, young swifts can spend the first three years of their life flying non-stop before finally landing to nest for the first time.  Swifts spend the winter feeding in the skies over Africa and may travel as far south as Malawi. The oldest recorded swift was at least 18 years old. It’s reckoned that this bird flew about 4 million miles over its lifetime. That is the same as flying to the moon and back 8 times!

close up image of swift

Swift, Credit: RSPB Images

Sadly, as the graph below shows, Swift populations are declining, and the bird is now of Amber conservation status. With more cases of extreme weather due to our changing climate, the flight of the Swift has become increasingly difficult every year. In April 2020, thousands of swifts were found dead or gravely injured in Greece. It’s thought they were blown off course due to unusually high winds, low temperatures and rain over the Mediterranean Sea.

graph showing swift numbers from 1994 to 2018

Numbers have been decreasing since records began (Massimino et al., 2019)

Swifts are insectivores, but recent research has shown that the insect populations they depend on are crashing. This appears to be due to a combination of habitat loss and fragmentation, development; agricultural intensification and the use of pesticides, and the impact of droughts, flooding and extreme weather events caused by global warming.

One of the biggest challenges that swifts face is the loss of nesting sites. Swifts often nest in the roof spaces of buildings, with pairs faithfully returning year after year to use the same nest site.  Unfortunately, nesting sites in older buildings are often blocked off during renovation work or lost when buildings are demolished.  Luckily, swifts will also use nest boxes, and as part of the Edinburgh Swift City Project we aim to put up as many swift nest boxes around Edinburgh as possible.

swift box on brick wallSwift nest box. Credit: RSPB

Edinburgh City Council’s Local Biodiversity Action Plan (LBAP) contains a series of actions to help conserve swifts in the city, including guidance for developers to encourage the incorporation of swift nesting bricks.in all new buildings. The Edinburgh Swift City project will help to deliver more of those LBAP actions, compliment the long-standing conservation programme by Edinburgh Biodiversity Partnership, and continue to make Edinburgh an even better home for swifts!

Thanks to generous funding from the ScottishPower Foundation we will be able to recruit volunteers and work with schools and local community groups to identify and protect existing swift nest sites, install new nest boxes and raise awareness about swifts across the city.

For now, our concern is to find out where swifts are nesting in Edinburgh. Swifts return to use the same nest year after year, and usually close to the nest they were born (their natal nest). Identifying current and recently occupied nests will help us protect their homes and identify priority locations for new swift nest boxes.

screenshot of swift mapper tool


This is where you come in. We need eyes and ears out all over the city, looking and listening for swifts. Please add sightings of swift nests or swift ‘screaming parties’ near buildings using our new ‘Swift Mapper’ app. It is free and easy to use on the web, or a smart phone. Once you have done this, please share to your social media using the hashtag #SwiftSighted and tag @RSPBScotland to encourage your friends and family to get involved.

Watch this video to help with swift identification. So, get out swift-spotting, and enjoy!