A Fontmell Magna villager is determined to address the decline in the number of swifts reported nationally.
Dick Stainer has fitted loudspeakers under the eaves of his Mill Street home so he can play recordings of swift calls, to encourage passing birds to his nest box. Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred went to meet him.
The Shaftesbury area is lucky to have residents committed to conserving its wildlife. Brigit Strawbridge has become Shaftesbury’s ambassador for bees, but Dick Stainer modestly shrugs off my suggestion that he is Fontmell Magna’s ‘swift champion’. “Yes – but I haven’t done anything about trying to get other people involved,” said Dick, adding, “But they know that I’m doing it.” He pointed out that his lane is a popular route for dog-walkers, and many have observed his speaker system set-up.
As we chatted in his back garden, Dick shared fond memories of his father talking about the swifts in the village. The birds were once a regular sight and sound around this house, previously owned by Dick’s grandfather. But there are far fewer swifts today. “The numbers of swifts and swallows have gone down by about 25% in the last two or three years. It is all to do with the health of the insect population,” Dick warned.
There is a local hotspot. Dick explained that he still sees swifts swooping up along the slope of Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill. There appears to be a colony in his own village of Fontmell Magna, too. “I sometimes hear them in the evening when they’re feeding, but I’m not certain where they come from,” he said.
Determined to arrest the decline in numbers, Dick has erected a swift box. “Nesting sites have disappeared. That’s the main problem. People have blocked up all the holes in the walls of their houses, up under the eaves and under the roof tiles. Thatched houses now have wire netting over the thatch to stop sparrows getting in there, but swifts would have gone into any holes as well.”
Dick explained that each species of bird has different nesting requirements. Swifts are not like housemartins, for example. “Housemartins build a mud nest on the outside. Swallows go inside a building, a barn for example, but it’s got to be open all the time and they build on a beam inside. But swifts need a hole in the masonry or a hole in the tiles to get into,” said Dick.
He hopes that passing swifts will be drawn to his swift box by his bird song soundtrack. “They like company. They like to be in colonies, so they are attracted to the sound of other swifts, and they’ll come and have a look,” Dick said.
We went inside Dick’s house and climbed the stairs to a spare bedroom. On a bookshelf at the side of the window lay a loudspeaker, connected by a wire to a small blue box, the size of a car radio. An SD data card was inserted into a slot on the gadget. It contained the bird song recording. Dick plugged the equipment into the mains and within seconds, the sound of swifts filled the room.
As the recorded birds tweeted, a row of blue LED lights flashed in sync with the rising and falling bird song. In a few days, Dick will attach the speakers to the outside of his home using cup hooks. “It’s all very cheap,” said Dick modestly. ” You can buy this all online. You could even use Amazon to get it. If you do it yourself, you can do it for about £50 pounds.”
I asked Dick whether he had expected an influx of swifts when he first played his swift soundtrack through his speakers last summer. “I was very surprised the first time that I saw any appear,” he said. “You don’t usually see them just around here. I didn’t think it would attract any. I was very surprised and pleased when it did.”
The swift sounds play at set times and Dick schedules the playback using an electronic timer. “It needs to be playing when they’re out feeding on still mornings. They won’t be out when it’s damp and dismal or dreary weather. It is sunny evenings and sunny mornings in the summer when the insects will be flying. If it is too damp, there won’t be insects flying around for them to feed on.”
Dick will start playing the swift call in a few days’ time. “The first wave is arriving. These will be the ones who’ve already got a nesting site. I should be very lucky if I managed to get some in the first wave into those boxes,” he said. “By the first week of June, there will be some coming back who are looking for nesting sites or perhaps some of the ones who came and looked last year will come back here.” Dick says he will play the sounds for around one month. “I’ll do it until the beginning of July,” he confirmed.
This is Dick’s second year of playing bird song and many people might have given up on the project after what appeared to be a lack of initial success. Luckily, Dick has developed a deep understanding of swift behaviour. He knows that this is a long process.
“They don’t nest until they’re three years old, so you need to attract birds that are looking for a nest site. They will be prospecting in their second year, and perhaps in their first year as well, but not so seriously. When they come back in the third year, they will have identified their site and they’ll nest there. All this depends on the pair staying together because they mate for life usually. If one of the pair dies during the migration, they have to start again and find another mate,” said Dick.
During his extensive research, Dick has learned how to make a swift box that appeals to the birds. “The man who runs Bristol Swifts did an experiment in 2018. He painted the inside of some of the boxes black and he did a controlled test.” Dick said that the boxes with a black interior attracted more swifts than the boxes with unpainted wood inside.
He thinks that the birds like their boxes to be very dark. “The swifts don’t make a proper nest inside. They like a bit of a depression. I need to buy a block with a sculpted depression and probably put a few duck feathers in it. They only make their nest with materials that they can catch on the wing – bits of grass or feathers.” That’s because swifts try to avoid landing. “Their legs are useless. They’re so short – they can just about hang on like a bat on a vertical surface if it is rough enough,” said Dick.
And he believes that developers could do more to accommodate this species. “In all new houses, they should be putting in what they call ‘swift bricks’ – hollow bricks which the swifts can get inside and then make a nest inside. They’re not very expensive and they’re very easy to incorporate when you are building. Some of them fit into a one brick space. Some of them are bigger, but they make them so that you can just build them into the wall.”
With so much building underway in Dorset, perhaps our Council’s planners should be encouraged to take notice and insist that any new homes provide a place for swifts to stay too? But in the meantime, Dick confirmed that he is in this for the long haul and hopes that his persistence will pay off. “I’m quite prepared to do it for three years before I’m successful,” said Dick.
And soon, hopefully, the sound of real swifts, rather than a recorded soundtrack, will be heard again on Mill Lane.