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 —

Oxford Swift City takes flight

The Museum is really pleased to be a partner in Oxford Swift City, a major new initiative to protect and nurture the city’s populations of swifts. Here Keo Baxendine at RSPB Midlands tells us more about the project…

Swift expert George Candelin shares his experience of researching the swifts at the Museum. Image: Colin Wilkinson.

The swifts have just returned to the UK after their long migration from Africa. At the Museum they have begun circling the tower where they nest each year.

These charismatic birds, Apus apus, are commonly recognised throughout the UK as a sign of summer. They also have a long cultural association with Oxford as a symbol of knowledge and dexterity. Yet sadly, the national swift population has fallen by 42 per cent since 1994, due to a lack of nesting sites and food.

The Oxford Swift City project hopes to turn the birds’ fortunes around by protecting existing swift nesting sites as well as encouraging the creation of new ones. Last night, project partners and guests gathered at the Museum to kick off the project.

The swift is an iconic species whose appearance announces the start of summer. Sadly the swift is in trouble. Numbers have dropped dramatically, putting the birds at risk of disappearing completely from the UK. The Oxford Swift City community project provides local people with a great opportunity to learn about this important bird and discover how to take action to help give swifts a home in Oxford.
– Lucy Hyde, Oxford Swift City Project Officer

Swift chicks in a nestbox in the Museum tower, shown on the webcam feed

There are lots of ways to get involved: take part as a swift survey volunteer; help out at a community event; or just put up a nestbox or plant wildflowers in the garden. You can also join a local swift expert on a number of ‘swift walks’ through Oxford over the summer.

The colony of swifts which nests in the Museum has been the subject of a research study since 1948, and is one of the longest continuous studies of a single bird species in the world. This work has contributed much to our knowledge of the swift.

Fittingly, Oxford Swift City is running a ‘Swift Tower’ design competition. Subject to approval, the winning design will be constructed in Oxford next year, providing ideal nesting spaces for swifts – so get scribbling!

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the RSPB-led Oxford Swift City project is supported by many local partners, including Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford City Council, Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre, Environment Resources Management and the local Wildlife Trust.

For more information please email