Swifts flying around the Museum tower

Flight and fight

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Last week’s observations of the swift nest boxes in the Museum tower highlighted the drama the colony faces in the struggle for survival. This week’s survey made that struggle even more explicit…

Clambering through the darkened spaces of the Museum tower, lit faintly by the red lights that the swifts cannot see but which help give surveyors a dim view of the ladder rungs and observation platforms, I peered briefly into each nest box to count the birds and eggs.

In one box I came across a dead bird, alone and lying on its back. Carefully bagging up the body for later investigation I continued my count while pondering the cause of its death, the sadness relieved slightly with the discovery of new eggs in other boxes and the promise of new life to come.

The body of a dead swift found during the weekly survey of the colony of birds in the Museum tower

Screams and banging from birds prospecting for nest sites are a regular backdrop to each survey. Birds call and swoop past the boxes only inches from my ears, separated by just a few roof slates. The birds within scream back in answer. But on this occasion, half way down the tower, I became aware of particularly loud and persistent screams and banging, coming from within a box.

A quick peek inside revealed a hectic struggle between at least three swifts, wings drawn back, wrestling and rolling around, pecking and slashing at each other with their sharp claws. It was actually impossible to see if the fight involved three or four birds as the struggle filled every inch of the small box with wings, beaks, claws and feathers.

David Lack first documented these fights in his excellent book Swifts in a Tower. He proposed that they were the result of birds entering an already occupied box in the struggle to find a suitable nest site.

Swifts flying around the Museum tower
Swifts circle the tower prospecting for potential nest sites, screaming and banging to check which are occupied and which are vacant. Image: Gordon Bowdery

Sitting and anxiously listening beside the box, I recorded the fight lasting 15 minutes from the time I became aware of it. Lack documented ‘gladiatorial shows’ that lasted five and three quarter hours; they were painful to watch, he admitted, as the swifts have a surprisingly strong grip and claws capable of drawing blood, but rarely resulted in death.

When the noise died down, I gently lifted the cloth blind to take another look. Only two birds remained, both looking exhausted and fiercely gripping each other’s feet, one lying under the other. A quick flurry and the upper bird disengaged and jumped from the nest box entrance.

Cover of 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack
Cover of the 2018 edition of Swifts in a Tower by David Lack

Lack also mentions in his book that it is usually the bird underneath in these struggles that is the winner and I was relieved when the remaining bird picked itself up and returned to the two eggs, which had somehow remained in the nest, settled on top of them and preened itself. This suggested that the nest’s original occupant had won, driving off an intruder.

The screaming and banging outside the boxes is a check for a screamed response from within. It reveals whether a box is already occupied or empty, before the bird risks entry. Presumably, the fight I witnessed was the result of a bird not hearing a response or perceiving it as coming from another box.

The drama of the fight illustrates the incredible importance of nest sites and the fidelity the swifts have to them after a year on the wing. Nest sites are at a premium and swifts are almost totally dependent on nesting in old buildings as there are so few forests with suitably old, cavity filled trees remaining.

Once a nest is occupied the owners will fight furiously to defend it and David Lack did record occasional incidents of birds fighting to the death. So perhaps this was the cause of the dead bird I had found lying on its back, but that will have to wait for a later examination.

Meanwhile keep an eye on our nest box; you never know what drama may play out next…

It is important to record nest sites and, if you can, put up nest boxes. RSPB’s Oxford Swift City project, which the Museum and Oxford City Council were involved in, annually surveys and records nesting sites so that development in these areas is restricted during the breeding season and developers must include plans to protect and provide new nest sites when repairs to property or new building takes place. If you would like to help with the work of conserving one of the most dramatic annual migrants to our shores visit the RSPB site.

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