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Species in the Spotlight: Swifts

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

In the next week or so, my favourite bird returns from spending its winter in Southern Africa, travelling over 14,000 miles on the round trip.

It’s the swift. The sounds of the swifts’ screaming in flight, chasing each other on a late summer’s evening or early morning is truly special and something to cherish.

Often confused for swallows and house martins, swifts are totally black to the naked eye. Their speed is amazing and the boomerang shape of the wings is unmistakable.

Group of swifts in flight
The swift almost never touches ground after learning to fly - it spends almost all of its life in the air. Photo: RSPB

An incredible journey:

The swifts left the UK last July/August, heading South through Europe and crossing the Mediterranean Sea over North Africa and down the West coast, towards Senegal. Once they pass the Western Sahara, they fly inland towards the Congo. This journey takes a couple of weeks travelling at an incredible 70mph.

They stay around the Congo up until Christmas time, when they travel further east around Zimbabwe and Mozambique. By April, they are heading back to the jungles of the Congo, fattening up on flying insects. They then start to fly North again, and by early May they are back in North Africa, waiting to cross the Mediterranean back into Europe, across Spain and France before they return to the area that they were born in.

Swifts in nest
Swifts mate and nest after one year, but are unlikely to have a successful nest until they are around 4 years old. Photo:

Swifts born last year will not breed this year, but tag along with the adults for the journey, checking out potential nest sites for the future upon return. All this time, they never touch land to rest, feed or roost. They sleep on the wing, feed on the wing and drink on the wing, landing in a nest only to lay and sit on their eggs, to brood and feed the young.

Swifts are really under threat and numbers have halved in the last 20 years. They rely heavily on humans for nest sites, as they like to nest in roof spaces; under the eaves, facia and soffit boards. In years gone by, they used to nest in caves and cliffs - even in hollowed out trees. Some swift colonies still use these sites, but the majority like to use our attics, lofts and soffits to nest. The nest is practically nothing: some bits of grass or the odd feather stuck together with saliva. They lay 2-4 eggs.

How you can help:

With modern building techniques like plastic roof lines, no loose or broken roof slates/tiles and no gaps for the swifts to enter to nest, the swifts are basically homeless. But, we can help them.

Swift nesting boxes

The RSPB will sometimes provide and install a swift box free of charge in areas where swifts are known to breed. The boxes need to be at least 5m above the ground, not in full sun and have no direct obstructions (trees, etc.). If are interested in getting, or need further advice on, siting a box then you can get in touch via the Chester RSPB group on Facebook, or email

Record your swift sightings on the Cheshire and Wirral record site. This helps to provide vital data and is used in planning applications for building. Sometimes swift boxes or swift bricks form part of a successful planning application.

Ellesmere Port (particularly Little and Great Sutton) have some great swift colonies, but we need to work to keep it that way. Some great places to watch swifts locally are:

  • Whetstone Hey (Valley View area),

  • Behind Little Sutton train station,

  • Hawthorn Road area,

  • Overpool (around Straker Avenue),

  • Whitby (around Orchard Road),

  • The Oval in Wolverham,

  • Ellesmere Port town centre,

  • Ashfield area,

  • Westminster area.

Swift in hand
Photo: British Trust for Ornithology

For more information on swifts, and how you can help, visit

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