Swift action needed to help urban birds in decline

Access Science: Birdwatch Ireland wants the public to keep eyes peeled for various species to help inform conservation work

Some urban bird species are in decline, most notably the swift, which migrates and typically returns to the same site over and over. Photograph: Artur Tabor

Some urban bird species are in decline, most notably the swift, which migrates and typically returns to the same site over and over. Photograph: Artur Tabor

 

Unless you are a keen ornithologist, you probably don’t notice the feathered inhabitants of towns, villages and cities. Yet urban spaces offer plenty of nesting and feeding spots for birds, and Birdwatch Ireland is asking volunteers to keep their eyes peeled for various species to help inform conservation work.

“When we think of wildlife and birds and habitats, our minds immediately get drawn to the likes of red grouse in the uplands or seabirds on a remote island,” says Brian Caffrey, a project officer with Birdwatch Ireland who is co-ordinating its urban birds initiatives. “We quite often forget that within our urban spaces, our towns, cities and villages are really important habitats for wildlife.”

Buildings can offer nesting sites, football pitches and parks are grounds for hunting and feeding, rivers and streams are home to water birds and even our domestic gardens offer shelter and nesting sites in trees and shrubs, as well as supplementary grub from kindly humans who put out feeders of peanuts and seeds.

Yet some urban bird species are in decline, most notably the swift, which migrates and typically returns to the same site over and over, says Caffrey. The Bird Atlas shows a decline since the 1970s, he says. “We are getting reports from many urban areas that people haven’t seen the swifts,” he says. “They are literally disappearing from towns and villages and cities.”

Spot the birds

Working with Dublin City Council, Birdwatch Ireland has run the Dublin City Urban Birds project since 2014. It asks people in Dublin to look out for and log details of species they see, particularly the swift, waterbirds (such as kingfisher, dipper, grey wagtail and sand martin), roof- nesting gulls, light-bellied brent goose and the house sparrow.

Caffrey is also involved with the National Swift Survey, funded by Heritage Council, which has again been recruiting eagle-eyed members of the public around Ireland.

“We encourage people to log sightings on our website, and that helps to paint a much better picture of where these birds are and where they are nesting,” says Caffrey. “This allows for better monitoring of these species over time, which is key.”

Data from the surveys can feed into planning for building and renovations, says Caffrey, which he stresses is important for swifts in particular. “They like to nest in holes and crevices, nooks and crannies under roofs, but because of better building techniques and renovations, these sites are being blocked up. Swifts, by their very nature, come to the same nest site every single year, and they live for quite a long time, so it causes huge problems for them when they have no nest to return to, and they may not successfully breed for a number of years.”

If it is known where the birds are nesting, then nesting boxes or “swift bricks” can be used to allow the renovations to proceed but maintain a site for the returning birds, he says.

If you would like to take part in the volunteer surveys but struggle to tell a swift from a swallow or a herring gull from a lesser black-backed gull, Birdwatch Ireland runs events to help with bird identification – and you could also snap a photo of the bird if possible.

“Smartphones offer a great way to help with identification: you can send us the picture and we can validate the species,” says Caffrey. “But you would do well to photograph a swift, as they live up to their name.”

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