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Swifts are encouraged to nest in Durham Cathedral Tower as speakers and cameras are installed

Durham Cathedral is encouraging breeding swifts to nest by installing high powered speakers 60ft above the ground in its iconic Belfry Tower.

The speakers will broadcast the sound of swift calls, in the hope of attracting young birds looking for their first nest site, to breed in the nest boxes fixed to the tower last year.

In addition to the sound system, a number of motion-triggered cameras will enable the team to monitor nest box use and will allow the cathedral to update the public on the progress of this hidden wildlife.

Michael Corkhill, Maintenance Supervisor at Durham Cathedral says,

‘Conservation and caring for nature is an important aspect of what we do at Durham Cathedral, so last year we were delighted to be able to install the swift boxes to help these endangered animals. With the addition of the sound system to attract the birds, we are hoping to encourage the colonisation of our nest boxes for the first time, and with the new monitoring devices we will also be able to track their progress.
We are grateful for the funding from local businessman and swift enthusiast Edward Twiddy who has made this project possible.”

Swifts are distinguishable by their dark colour, sickle-shaped outline and fast, wheeling flight pattern. Their screeching calls to each other are an unmistakable sign of summer. They spend most of their life on the wing, only ever landing to breed in the UK, following their return from Africa in early May. They can be identified from swallows which have forked tails and house martins, which have a diagnostic white rump in flight.

UK swift populations have declined by 60% between 1995 and 2020 and, as a result, are on the red-list of the UKs most threatened bird species. It is thought that poor summer weather, a decline in food sources and a loss of suitable nesting sites have contributed to swifts reaching this critical conservation status.

Collaboration between individuals and institutions is vital to the success of ecological projects, so the cathedral is pursuing this project in collaboration with a range of local stakeholders including Edward Twiddy of Atom Bank, who generously funded the installation of Swift boxes, and several academics, including Professor Stephen Willis from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, who is leading on Durham University’s drive for net biodiversity gain across its many sites around the city.

Edward Twiddy says,

“The sound and sight of swifts is an icon of summer. Their presence in the City sends a noisy and spectacular reminder that life returns each spring, but across the UK and much of Europe fewer and fewer of these tireless trans-continental visitors have been returning to raise the next generation. Needing little more than healthy insect populations and somewhere to nest, their demise should send a clear warning about what we are doing to the world around us.”
“The cathedral is already home to many wonderful bird and bat species that enjoy the sanctuary of the towers and the cloisters; helping the swifts to come back year after year from Africa to find perfect nesting conditions felt like a small but right thing to do.”

Professor Stephen Willis says,

“The University is working in collaboration with the Cathedral and other land managers around the city to ensure we have a joined-up strategy to reverse the decline of biodiversity locally.
The swift project also offers the potential for future research projects to better understand the ecology and movements of these enigmatic global tourists, complementing other work on migratory birds that is going on at the university”

The Belfry Tower at Durham cathedral is an ideal location for swifts to nest as it is secluded, and the ingress points are small enough to exclude birds of prey. The custom nest boxes, made to fit the architecture of the building by the cathedral’s joiners, were fitted last year, and contain multiple nesting chambers, each with a small, base nest-cup which breeding swifts favour.

Durham Cathedral hope that the technology being installed this week will help to speed up the colonisation of swifts in the tower and help to boost the population of this iconic bird. As it can take years to establish a swift colony, this is a long-term investment in the cathedrals environmental infrastructure and the biodiversity of Durham's UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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