Swifts in the tower

Each spring, swifts return to the UK after their long migration from Africa. For years, the Museum tower has been a favourite nesting site.

The Museum tower is a nesting site for European Swifts, and they are a familiar summer sight here. Once fledged, Common or European Swifts (Apus apus) spend practically their entire life in flight. They feed, sleep and collect nesting material on the wing. The only time a swift stops flying is when it is breeding, although they sometimes even mate without stopping.

The swifts’ nest boxes are well hidden, and accessing them involves a cramped climb to the very top of the tower. Our webcam reveals this hidden space, showing chicks growing each summer. Cameras have been installed in two of the nest boxes, and the images are streamed online from May to early September.

Studying the swifts in the tower

The colony of swifts here has been the subject of a research study since May 1948, which was started by Elizabeth and David Lack. It is one of the longest continuous studies of a single bird species in the world, and has contributed much to our knowledge of the swift. In 1956, Swifts in a Tower was published, detailing the Lacks’ work on the colony. In 2018, the book was republished, offering a fascinating insight into the swifts which continue to nest in the tower. 

Since 1994, the swift population in the UK has fallen by 42%. This may be due to a lack of nesting sites and food. The Oxford Swift City project, launched by the RSPB in 2017, aims to improve the conservation of swifts in Oxford by raising local awareness and through public engagement.

In 2014, inspired by the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition on display here, the Museum held a swift photograph competition. Mastery of the Skies by Judith Wakelam was chosen as the winner. Below you can see some of the other competition entries.

The Common Swift

Common Swifts (Apus apus) have coal-black or brown plumage, although they appear black against the sky, with a pale throat. Their long, thin, rigid and scythe-shaped wings are built for efficient gliding flight over long distances. They are very fast fliers and are recognisable by their high-pitched screaming call.

Swift beaks have a wide gape to catch a variety of flying insects and airborne spiders while on the wing, and they are able to fly hundreds of kilometres a day while feeding, and even while sleeping. A pair of swifts feeding young may catch some 20,000 insects and spiders in a single day.

Their short legs and strong feet, with all four toes facing forwards, are used to hang on to vertical surfaces, to crawl into their nests or for fighting intruders. Contrary to common belief, swifts can take off from the ground pushing off with its long wings, although they are unable to walk or perch on the ground.

Swifts start to arrive in the UK during the last days of April, and the fledglings usually leave around the beginning of August, followed by their parents a week or so later.
migration swift