They spend most of their lives in the air, even mating, feeding and sleeping ‘on the wing’, but they do still need the perfect nook or cranny to finally settle down in to nest and bring on their young.
Increasingly this is proving a challenge for the most aerial of birds to visit Britain, the swift, because the species has relied on cosy openings in dated architecture, making Yorkshire’s old mills and its surviving Victorian housing stock a sure-fire attraction.
However, with many of these buildings now being torn down or replaced, the swift faces something of a crisis. According to the RSPB, swifts have suffered a population decline of 38 per cent over the past 25 years, a situation which puts them on the amber list of conservation concern.
The RSPB is approaching this problem through its Swift Cities project which aims to get urban folk to help them plot where swifts are seen nesting, and by working with Barratt Homes to introduce swift-friendly bricks to give the species a nesting option in new build properties.
And now, a group in the Ryedale market town of Helmsley, dismayed by the loss of habitats as old roofs have been replaced on local homes, are taking matters into their own hands.
A number of new nest boxes have been put up in the community to encourage swifts to make a temporary home there ahead of the bird’s breeding season, including four at Claridges Book Shop and several more at the North York Moors National Park Authority offices on Bondgate, Porters Coffee Shop and on homes in Castlegate.
The initiative of a group called Helmsley Swifts aims to educate people about the bird, ensure that existing nest sites are retained and, by working with Helmsley in Business, identify suitable locations for more nest boxes.
Jonathan Pomroy, a wildlife and landscape artist who started Helmsley Swifts with Ian Kibble, said: “Many nests in Helmsley are located under pan tiles in the loft space and consist of material gathered entirely on the wing; feathers, bud cases and pieces of grass or straw blown into the air. To make life a bit easier for them we put some downy feathers in the nest boxes before they are put in place.”
The main arrival of swifts into North Yorkshire is in early to mid-May, as they prepare to breed. The boxes will allow them to roost safely, laying one clutch of two or three eggs at the end of May or early June which they incubate for about 20 days.
At the end of the month they will be joined by younger non-breeding birds, who are looking for sites to breed in future years, but who do not land. Swifts only land to nest and young swifts do not breed until they are four-years-old, meaning they will have made four return journeys to Africa - where they spend the winter - without their feet touching the ground.
Tim Melling, senior conservation officer at the RSPB, said: “Originally it was genuinely thought they didn’t have feet because they are always in the air. The swift never sleeps, it is always on the wing and it shuts off one side of its brain at a time so it can keep flying around while it is semi-conscious.
“It is a species we are really concerned about and it would be sad if we lost them. Anything that people can do to make buildings more swift friendly is welcome and all praise to the people of Helmsley for doing so.”
A free Midsummer Swift Eve event will be held in Helmsley on June 21 from 7.30pm at All Saints Church when a short presentation will be followed by a guided walk around the town to observe the swifts in their new homes.