Creating a wildlife refuge in your yard that provides nesting sites, shelter and food will help support these birds, Hannah Stephenson finds.
This year, the Wild About Gardens campaign (wildaboutgardens.org.uk), organized by the RHS and The Wildlife Trusts, aims to halt the decline in numbers of swifts, swallows and house swallows.
Swifts and house swifts have recently been added to the UK Red List of Threatened Birds, after suffering serious declines in recent decades. It is estimated that almost 60% of UK swifts have disappeared in the past 25 years, charities warn.
Wild About Highflyers, the name of this year’s Wild About Gardens campaign, urges people to support these charismatic migratory birds and help reverse habitat loss and the decline of insect prey.
“Unfortunately, these birds – like much of our wildlife – have suffered serious declines in recent decades due to habitat loss and a drop in the number of insects, which are affected by pollution, development impacts and climate change,” says Dr Rob Stoneman, director. landscape recovery at The Wildlife Trusts.
“With a little diversity and structure, a garden can become a haven for all kinds of wildlife, providing nesting sites, shelter and food. It’s about being creative, letting go of all the chemicals and let things get a little wild.
“If we could encourage enough gardeners to donate part of their garden to wildlife, it could do wonders for the natural world, which means more insects for swallows and more wildlife enjoyment for people. ”
Helen Bostock, Senior Wildlife Specialist at the RHS, suggests five ways to support birds in the garden
1. Give your birds a box this year
Some birds are content to choose their own habitat, a robin nesting in an old pair of gardening boots or a couple of blackbirds hiding their nest in a tangle of stems in dense shrubbery.
Many other birds, however, will be happy to use artificial boxes. These can be a lifesaver if natural nesting sites are scarce or if human construction works mean that eaves or soffit boards are no longer available for house sparrows or returning migratory birds such than swifts.
Place the boxes as close as possible to where the original site was. Choose birdhouse designs based on your space or the species you want to attract.
2. Help out with the nest liner
Birds use a wonderful variety of nesting material. Long-tailed tits, for example, spend days constructing a teardrop-shaped globe from thousands of pieces of lichen, moss, grass, wool, hair and feathers. Tolerating a little moss in your lawn and hanging undyed sheep’s wool will ensure a plentiful supply, even in newly constructed gardens.
Meanwhile, swallows and house swallows use mud, binding it with pieces of dry grass. Mud isn’t always easy to come by, especially in a dry year, so make it happen by building a mini bog garden or keeping a muddy edge to the side of your garden pond.
3. Serve bugs
Plant a border or insect-friendly meadow flowers such as wild carrot, poppy, yarrow, scab and bistort. What you are looking for are flowers with open structures on which even the smallest flies, wasps and beetles can land and access nectar or pollen.
The massive drop in insect numbers in the UK and beyond means there is less fodder for hungry birds. Migratory insectivorous birds such as swallows, house swallows and spotted flycatchers need them in abundance. Even seed-eating birds will usually need a plentiful supply of caterpillars, aphids, and other insects to feed their young.
4. Create a running water feature
Some birds, especially blackbirds, seem particularly attracted to fountains, waterfalls or trickling fountains – so why not get one this summer? They also make a pretty sound and a place to watch birds in their bathing antics. It is a good idea to keep any water feature used by birds for bathing or drinking stocked and refreshed regularly with clean water. This will help stop the spread of bird disease.
5. Introduce Pet Patrol
Keep pets, especially cats, indoors when you notice baby birds in the garden. These fluffy and often dull versions of their parents can be seen hopping on or near the ground. It’s easy to mistake this for a needy chick seemingly abandoned by its parents, but it’s normal behavior for many fledglings when they first emerge from the nest and adults are often nearby.
In fact, the chicks will squawk quite loudly if a free dinner is on the way. Young swifts, swallows, and house swallows are the exception because they can fly from an early age. If you find one on the ground or the bird appears injured, call your local shelter for advice.
How to identify house swifts, swallows and swifts if they visit your garden
House swallows have glossy blue-black upperparts and pure white underparts and a distinctive white rump with a forked tail. They overwinter in Africa, but can be seen throughout the UK between March and October, scurrying between town and village rooftops or near areas of farmland, woodland and water where the insects are abundant. They sometimes nest in groups, usually consisting of about five nests.
Swallows are small birds with shiny dark blue backs, dark red foreheads and throats, pale underparts, and long forked tails. They spend most of their time on the wing. You’ll see them here from March to October, often spotted perched on wires in small numbers.
Swifts are brown, but in flight against the sky appear black, with long wings and a short forked tail. Again, they are summer visitors, breeding in the UK but spending their winters in Africa.
The new campaign will go live on March 23. For more information and to download an accompanying guide, visit wildaboutgardens.org.uk