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A rosy future for Swifts at the Hospital of St Cross

What a shame that the many events normally staged at the Hospital of St Cross to raise vital funds couldn't be held this year due to the pandemic. In 2019 the Summer Fete alone had raised over £10,000, and Hampshire Swifts had attended the Michaelmas Fair on 28th September that year with a stand to promote Swifts and their presence at the Hospital. You can read about how our involvement started here on the Our Projects page and in an earlier blog here. This describes the installation of eight internal nest boxes in the eaves of the Old Kitchen Wing in September 2018 which was followed by a further seven internal boxes on the same elevation in February 2019.

Old Kitchen Wing - Outer Quad where internal boxes have been sited

In 2019 two pairs fledged young (boxes 1 & 5) for the first time and there was also the start of a nest in another (box 4). We also knew there were just 2-3 other pairs in natural sites.

So how have they done in 2020? Observations during the summer indicated that birds were going in and out of five of the fifteen boxes, and Clerk of the Trustees, Catriona Morley, and Catharine Gale had the huge excitement of watching two young birds fledge from one nest on the 23 July! I am so envious... Around this time there were more than 20 Swifts regularly screaming around the Outer Quad. Four natural nest sites have also been found this year.

Young Swift peering out of Box 5 (Catriona Morley)

Before the second lockdown we visited to inspect the boxes once more and confirmed that indeed five had been occupied. Once again it was clear that birds had fledged from boxes 1 & 5 whilst the nest in box 4 was now completed though as the bottom of the box was pretty clean no young had been reared. Nests had been started in boxes 6 & 7. A call player has been used in both seasons, in 2019 with the speaker adjacent to box 1 and this was then moved for the 2020 season to sit adjacent to box 7. Swifts are long-lived birds and recent research shows that some birds live up to 30 years. As a consequence they have a slow reproduction rate (usually 2 young per year in a single brood) and do not start to breed until their 4th calendar year, if they can find a nest site that is.

The two pictures above both show Box 1. On the right is what it looked like in September 2019 with plenty of feathers in the nest still, and on the left is what it looked like in October 2020 after the moths had eaten them. When we opened the boxes last year we noted two different moth species especially in box 5. One was the Common Clothes Moth Tineola bisselliella (not common anymore) which is known to occur in birds nests especially those in buildings, and whose larvae feed on wool, fur, feathers etc and even fish meal and flour.

Common Clothes Moth Tineola bisselliella St Cross Sept 2019

Box 5 below had been 'cleaned' in a similar way and the almost complete lack of any solid droppings remaining was notable though whether this was done by moth larvae or one of a myriad of other little critters that are known to spend their lives carrying out such a valuable service isn't known.

Box 5 October 2020

The newly occupied boxes 6 and 7 had the beginnings of nests started presumably by young birds so it will be interesting to see how these develop next year.

Boxes 6 (left) and 7 (right) October 2020

The most encouraging thing this year has been the sight of 20+ birds screaming around the Outer Quad. This hasn't happened for over 15 years and just shows what can be achieved in a short time if nest boxes are provided and the conditions are right. I think next year we will try running two speakers some distance apart to attract them to the other boxes - we would have done it this year had circumstances not intervened. We are told anecdotally that in the past there would sometimes be a hundred birds screaming around the Main Quad so we have a way to go but as Ron Cooke often says "Swifts attract more Swifts!". The future looks rosy for Swifts at St Cross.

Our very grateful thanks are due to Catriona Morley, Catharine Gale, Roger Maynard and all others that have been involved. Stay safe everyone.

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