two swifts looking out from their nesting area

A Swift Return to Summer

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

Amidst reports during the last week of Swifts being sighted feeding over the nearby Farmoor reservoir, Museum staff have kept their eyes to the skies eagerly waiting to be the first to spot our resident birds returning to their breeding site in the nest boxes of our tower. A wet and windy weekend caused by a deep depression over Britain meant little opportunity to feed on their diet of small flies and other invertebrates that make up the aerial plankton they relish, and which normally drifts unseen above our heads in large numbers on still summer days.  The high winds would certainly also have made any attempt to land, for the first time in a whole year since they left their nest boxes and for the first time ever for those just reaching maturity, extremely precarious, and so it seems our Swifts headed farther afield, possibly back to continental Europe, for a few days to await better conditions.

swifts flying around the museum tower against a cloudy sky
Swifts flying around the Museum tower by Mark Garrett

However, this morning, the 5th of May and right on cue, we were treated to the first two Swifts performing a low, high speed fly-by of the tower. Having flown around 14,000 miles in the last year from the Museum’s tower to their winter feeding grounds in southern Africa and back again, the Swifts have arrived on exactly the day of their average time of arrival over the last couple of decades.  We know this because the Swifts in the tower are part of an ongoing study which is the longest running study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1947, our Keeper of the Swifts, George Candelin still climbs the spiral stone stairs and ladders each week under red lights to carefully and quietly monitor each nest box throughout the breeding season an count and ring each chick noting down all sorts of other data as he does so from wind speeds to egg rejections, weights and even altercations between birds in boxes over rights to nest sites.  Whilst you can’t be involved in the weighing and ringing of the birds, we do offer the next best way of getting involved; our nest box webcams, which you can find on our ‘Swifts in the Tower’ page, allow you to watch all the action live as it happens from the arrival of the adults to the final fledging as the next generation takes wing for the first time. Hidden microphones will also allow you to hear as screaming parties bang their wings against the nest box covers in order to ascertain if they are occupied and the keening noises of begging chicks!  George’s stats and comments will also be downloaded to the Swift’s Diary each week enabling you to get a full picture of what’s happening across the colony’s 147 nest boxes as the season progresses.

Swifts have markedly declined in numbers over the last few decades, and their breeding season is one of the few times anyone has to measure population changes and you can get involved, too.  Check out if there is a Swift City project near you like Oxford Swift City @oxford_swift or @EdinburghSwifts to get directly involved in monitoring projects or just record your Swift sightings to the RSPB at their Swift Mapper site. All your observations give us a really good idea of how these enigmatic summer visitors are doing!

Update-in the half hour it has taken to write this blog post: the number of Swift’s flying around the tower is up to 5-and they’re screaming!

Summer is here!

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.

Robin

The dawn chorus

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With the noises of the hectic morning commute temporarily silenced, it has never been a better spring to enjoy the sounds of the dawn chorus. If you are able to get out early it’s a great way to reduce some of the stresses of lockdown. But if you can’t, or would rather have a lie-in, here we bring a little of the dawn chorus to you.

The video above shows the beautiful grounds of Harcourt Arboretum, a site a few miles outside Oxford that is part of Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums. The chirruping, tweeting soundtrack was recorded at the start of the pandemic lockdown, and is an excerpt from 50 minutes of uninterrupted dawn chorus which you can listen to in full here (recommended background while WFH!):

The enveloping sound of the dawn chorus is an ensemble piece, but who are the individual players? To hone your birdsong identification skills and practice picking out individual songs of some common British birds, Andy Gosler at the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology has put together this beautiful resource.

So now we’re in the zone, let’s find out a little more about the dawn chorus and how it’s made.

A sense of dawn
Why are so many birds singing at dawn and not at another time of day? There are several good reasons which may explain this.

At dawn, there are fewer other environmental noises cluttering the airwaves and the air density and temperature allow sound to travel further. Many migrant birds arrive in the UK overnight and early morning, and those that are ready to breed begin looking for mates and territories early in the day. So singing at this time stakes a clear claim to new arrivals and announces that the territory is already taken.

For insectivorous birds and those that use sight to find food, dawn is the least profitable time to search. Insects are more dormant in colder temperatures and food less easy to spot in dawn’s lower light levels and early morning mists. It’s a better use of time and energy to sing!

But why spring? What triggers birds to start singing? It clearly makes sense to breed at this time of year when there is a steady supply of food, as insect population growth coincides with the re-growth of the plants that feed many insects.

But the real trigger is day length. Increased light boost hormones in birds that spark incredible physiological changes. Unlike humans, birds have an amazing ability to reduce and increase the size of various organs according to their use, carefully regulating the amount of energy expended by those organs.

Robin
The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Britain’s national bird, is one of the many voices contributing to the dawn chorus. Image: Scott Billings

Shifting sounds
As hormone levels increase, not only do birds’ sexual organs increase in size ready for the breeding season, but the part of their brains dedicated to sound processing and sensitivity also increases, meaning that birds’ hearing abilities fluctuate throughout the year.

Imagine not being able to recognise what people were saying or who was talking in winter, then suddenly being able to pick out every minute difference in tone, volume and timbre in spring! When you listen to the cacophony that is the dawn chorus, this is exactly what each bird is doing – recognising each individual and its territorial and breeding condition – and many birds show less acuity for this outside the breeding season.

Sound location also improves. Humans have relatively large, wide heads and this allows us to judge the direction a sound is coming from by detecting the slight differences heard by each ear. With their tiny heads, birds cannot do this when their heads are still, so they move their heads around a lot to help locate sounds.

You might be thinking that with such sensitive hearing birds would be in danger of going deaf during a raucous dawn chorus. But they have another adaptive trick up their sleeves. Inside the inner ears are tiny cilia, or hairs, that detect the vibrations of sound. In mammals, these hairs gradually diminish over time and don’t grow back, but birds have the ability regrow cilia throughout their lives!

Hidden music
Birds are also able to process birdsong much more quickly and fully than we can, hearing things that our brains are just too slow to cope with. Whilst we may love the musicality of the dawn chorus, we are actually missing many of the individual notes.

A verdant scene at Harcourt Arboretum

Sonograms of bird songs show that where humans often hear just a couple of notes there may be several more emitted at rapid speed.

How do they do it? We sing by passing air over flaps of skin in our sound-producing organ, the larynx, a bit like blowing over a piece of grass trapped between your thumbs. But birds have separately evolved another and more impressive way of singing. They don’t just have one organ to produce song, they have two – called syrinx.

Syrinx are more like drum skins that can be tightened or loosened by muscles as sound passes over them. They can be operated independently or together enabling a single bird to sing a chord of several notes at the same time in harmony with itself!

Time to tune in to the dawn chorus and marvel at the complex, beautiful phenomenon of birdsong…

Eggs in the tower

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

We have our first eggs! After an earlier than usual return from the warmth of Africa, followed by a cold snap of north easterly winds, our swifts have begun to lay their first clutches of eggs in the tower.

Ten eggs were counted on 14 May, some in pairs and some lying singly on nests. Birds in other nests appear to be incubating as well, sitting in pairs and screaming out at any newcomers investigating possible nesting sites.

More swifts are arriving daily and screaming parties are urgently exploring for potential nesting locations. They buzz the tower’s nesting holes at speed and bang on the entrances with their wings like naughty teenagers playing a vociferous game of ‘knock and run’!

Typically, no bird has yet elected to nest in either of the boxes fitted with webcams. But as the weather warms and more swifts take up residence every day, we’re sure you’ll be able to follow all the drama of the Swifts in the tower very soon.

The swifts circle the Museum tower looking for suitable nesting sites

The delicate art of laying
Swifts tend to lay their eggs in the mornings, usually between 8am and 11am. The small, fragile eggs are white to reflect light, an adaptation shared by most cavity-nesting birds that makes the eggs more visible to adults in the dark of the nest.

The first eggs this year appear to be quite early in the season compared with the observations by David Lack in the 1940s and 50s. At that time, when the study of the Museum’s colony began, the first eggs were recorded on average between 17 and 22 May, but sometimes none was laid until the first week of June.

Egg production and laying in swifts are very closely tied to the weather, and production seems to be triggered by the availability of food. Swifts feed exclusively on small airborne insects, which are more abundant in the warm thermals and light winds we experience on good summer days.

It takes a swift five days to produce and then lay an egg. Five days before our first eggs were laid it was sunny and warm, just before the strong, cold north easterly winds swept down over the weekend and lowered the temperature. The warmer early start to the summer seems to have triggered this early laying; whether this is a trend that is increasing as the climate changes is something we should able to answer with long-term datasets provided by studies like this.

Dealing with the weather
Whatever climate change has in store for us it is becoming clear that we won’t experience repeated hot summers. The unpredictability of the British summer reigns supreme.

Swifts have evolved several wonderful adaptations to deal with the vagaries of our weather. Their eggs can be left without an adult to keep them warm for several days. There are records of eggs being left unattended for almost a week and still developing normally. Although adults usually take it in turns to feed and brood the eggs, sometimes during the day the eggs are left unattended by both birds which are then able to forage far afield for food.

Unlike many songbirds which produce one egg a day until their clutch is completed, swifts are able to space out their laying. In a clutch of two or three eggs, the second or third may be laid two or three days after the first, depending on weather conditions. The birds will also limit the size of clutches, with clutches of three eggs the average in warm weather and two eggs the average in cold weather. This helps the adults to supply all of their young with enough food.

Finally, swifts may also eject eggs and lay a second clutch. Some studies have linked this behaviour to cold weather but this has not always been the case at the Museum colony and is a further line of investigation in the ongoing studies of these most secretive of birds.

From laying to hatching usually takes about 19 days, depending on the weather. So we should be seeing our first chicks at the very beginning of June, hopefully streaming live on the Swiftcam

*

Screaming parties prospecting for nest sites are a good way for you to see if you have nesting swifts nearby. Any records really help with our understanding of the current population in the UK. You can help conservation and recording for the Oxford Swift City project, or use the RSPB’s Swift Mapper for the rest of the UK.

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

A swift return

Chris Jarvis cleaning the nest box in the Museum Tower Room

by Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

‘Look! They’re back! Look!’
This line from Ted Hughes’ excellent poem Swifts shares the excitement generated every year by the arrival of one of the most iconic summer visitors to Britain…. and I’m pleased to announce that they’re here!

Each year at the Museum we eagerly look forward to the swifts returning from their epic migration to southern Africa and back to our tower. Here they will land for the first time in a year, to nest after a 14,000 mile journey on the wing.

Necks of Museum staff are strained as each of us develops a twitcher’s twitch, heads snapping upwards at every bird flying overhead. We all hope to be the first to see a swift returning to the buzz the tower, scoping out the possible nesting opportunities, some no doubt remembering past sites from summers gone by.

Video courtesy Oxford Swift City

With the Museum currently closed due to the global pandemic, this year most staff will be craning their necks to the sky at home, perhaps wondering if any swifts they spot are ‘our’ Museum swifts, or some of the many others that colonise the roof spaces and nest boxes of Oxford and its surrounding towns each year.

Chris cleaning the swifts’ nest boxes with a feather duster

The swifts at the Museum are part of what is probably the longest-running continuous study of any bird colony in the world, started by David Lack in 1948. Because so little is known about these protected and declining populations of birds, every bit of data matters.

Although the Museum’s Swift Warden, George Candelin, is currently unable to reach the Museum during the lockdown, we agreed that it was an essential part of our role as a conservation and research institution to continue the study that has helped us to understand what little we do know about these enigmatic visitors.

Even before the swifts arrive there is a lot to do. With George’s expert guidance, in the last week of April we climbed the winding stone staircase and then the ladders to the very top of the tower to prepare for the swifts’ arrival.

Each of the nest boxes is thoroughly cleaned and their entrance holes dusted to make sure they are free of cobwebs or other obstructions. We then replace the shallow nests used to entice nesting activity. Swifts cannot land to collect nesting material and so have to collect suitable airborne material while on the wing. Their nests are often scanty, basic affairs made of a few stray feathers and other random bits of material they have found blowing about in the wind, so they seem to appreciate a helping hand.

Each of the 80 nest boxes has to be carefully cleaned before the swifts return from Africa

Each of the man-made nests comprises a shallow ring of soft feathers. This is removed from the nest box at the end of each breeding season, frozen to kill off any resident feather lice or other pests, then thawed and gently replaced.

Finally the Swift Cams are put in position and checked, ready to beam intimate shots of life in the tower directly into your home. Now you can follow the breeding season of these fascinating but hard to observe birds from the comfort of your sofa!

All this was completed just in time as, on leaving the Museum, one lucky staff member glanced upwards to see the first swift of the season glide across the sky above the tower. Perhaps a visitor travelling further north to breed, just passing through, or perhaps an early arrival feeding up and replenishing itself before starting its nesting, checking its old nest site is still there and reminding us, as Ted Hughes continued in his poem, that…

They’ve made it again,

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summer’s

Still all to come —

Image credit - Flickr/milo bostock, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Changing climate is narrowing options for migrating birds

This article is taken from European research magazine Horizon as part of our partnership to share natural environment science stories with readers of More than a Dodo.

Across an entire desert or ocean, migratory birds make some of the most extreme journeys found in nature, but there are still huge gaps in our understanding of how they manage to travel these vast distances and what a changing climate means for their migration patterns.

‘Some species of migrants might be affected by a changing climate,’ said Professor Stuart Bearhop, an animal ecology expert from the University of Exeter. ‘There is evidence from a number of populations that climate change probably is going to have some impact on the demography (population levels).’

Bearhop ran the STATEMIG project, which studied the migration of Brent Geese along their journey from Ireland to the Arctic where they breed. He found that the volatility of today’s seasons was affecting the geese’s population levels because the weather was playing havoc with their breeding patterns.

‘Wet years are predicted to increase with climate change as temperature rises, but, of course, because they travel so far north, it doesn’t mean rain, it means snow,’ he said. Brent Geese are more likely to breed when the weather is cold and clear, but when there is more snow there are fewer places to safely raise their young and feed.

The team observed that in the colder years the birds were breeding later in the year, causing ripple effects for their populations. The geese did not have enough time to raise their offspring to independence before winter, or there was not enough food for them to survive.

Bearhop says the snowy years saw more offspring die or be abandoned by adults. That means if snowy years persist then it could pose a long-term risk to the population of these birds.

Brent Geese

Bearhop chose Brent Geese because they follow a routine migration and their young stay with their parents for at least a year. These reliable patterns reveal useful insights into population levels and what could be affecting their migration.

To gather their data, STATEMIG researchers observed the geese in Ireland and Iceland before the birds flew to the Arctic to breed around July. In Ireland and Iceland they attached identity tags to the birds and took some physical measurements to use as reference points over several years.

When the geese returned to Ireland and Iceland around late August, with their chicks, the researchers could compare the population levels and get an idea of how environmental factors had shaped their journeys.

‘There are multiple factors that have likely driven the evolution of migration, these likely differ among species and the debate is about which ones are most important,’ said Bearhop.

Debate

Bearhop says the two key reasons birds migrate is because of a competition of territory and to take advantage of seasonal ‘pulses’ of vegetation growth or gluts of insects to ensure they have enough food to raise their young.

STATEMIG’s research emphasises the importance of the latter and Bearhop hopes it could lead to further research that explores how changes to feeding grounds will affect populations of migratory birds.

According to Dr Sissel Sjöberg, a bird migration researcher from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, scientists understand some parts of why birds migrate, like knowing where they eat and breed, but they do not have the tools to accurately understand them during the entire migration.

For instance, there are high resolution tags that can be put on some big birds to track their location, but these do not fit on smaller birds which make up most of the ones migrating.

 Tiny backpacks worn by noctural small birds contain a pressure sensor which provides an update every five minutes of the birds’ behaviour during migration. Image credit - Dr Sissel Sjöberg
Tiny backpacks worn by noctural small birds contain a pressure sensor which provides an update every five minutes of the birds’ behaviour during migration. Image credit – Dr Sissel Sjöberg

These tags also do not provide insights into other aspects, like altitude or how they traverse over huge, inhospitable areas where they may not be able to land, like the Sahara desert or the Pacific Ocean.

Dr Sjöberg is the principal researcher of the BIRDBARRIER project which is putting tiny backpacks on nocturnal small birds migrating long distances, such as red-backed shrikes and great reed warblers. These backpacks contain an activity log with a pressure sensor to determine heights and provide updates every five minutes of their behaviour during the journey, which can be correlated with weather forecasts or detailed landscape maps.

‘It is clear they go higher in their flights then we thought before,’ said Dr Sjöberg, adding that experts previously thought their size limited them to flying at 2,000-3,000 metres above sea-level, but she has observed them fly at almost 6,000 metres.

Dr Sjöberg says they could be doing this to find stronger winds that carry them longer distances, which require less energy to fly in and increase their chances of survival.

She says the biggest risk for these birds is to stop in the hostile terrains they cross because it could be difficult to take off again or find the same heights. Safe places to land are crucial to these birds on their intercontinental journeys because they have favourable conditions, including sources of food, but in some places they are getting smaller, for instance, in the Sahara where the desert is expanding.

‘Those (safe) areas are getting smaller and smaller so there is more competition,’ said Dr Sjöberg, who will continue to collect data from the backpacks for several more months before analysing it for some new insights.

She hopes that her research will help identify the most important areas for birds, which could help inform authorities on how to better protect these safe havens.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

This post Changing climate is narrowing options for migrating birds was originally published on Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission.