The plants at the left of this mural in Leith might be overgrown houseplants. The beetles and butterflies suggest an outdoor environment, but what about the swifts, swooping through the exotic foliage. Where is it that swifts go for the winter?
The tropical forest in this story is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an important wintering ground for the swifts which travel north each year….
skirting the Sahara and crossing the Mediterranean….
before making their way across Europe and returning to Edinburgh.
In three months the swifts head south again, following the supplies of airborne insects back through Europe and on to Africa.
Numbers of swifts returning to the UK each year fell by more than 50% between 1995 and 2016, when the estimated average population dropped from 125,500 to 59,000. One of the biggest challenges that the species faces is the loss of nesting sites in older buildings, which are often blocked off during renovation work or lost when buildings are demolished.
Edinburgh’s Swift City Project, an RSPB Scotland initiative supported by Edinburgh City Council, has used art and poetry alongside citizen science and self-guided swift-watching trails to raise awareness of these familiar yet otherworldly birds. The project has involved local community groups in putting up colonies of nest boxes on Swift Hub buildings and in Swift Streets, where neighbours also commit to wildlife friendly gardening methods to boost insect populations.
This 24ft mural by Natasha Russell, completed in July 2021, was one of a series commissioned by Swift City, during a year of activities funded by the Scottish Power Foundation. That year has now come to an end but the Edinburgh Swifts group is continuing its work.
Swifts now have friends in high places with Members of the Scottish Parliament passing a motion this July welcoming the annual Swift Awareness Week and noting that:
swifts are one of the classic signs of summer, returning to the same nesting sites in Scotland from Africa every year from early May and leaving again from early August after their chicks have fledged; acknowledges that swifts were added to the Red List of birds of “highest conservation concern” in the 2021 Birds of Conservation Concern 5 report, following a reported reduction of 58% in the UK swift population in the last 25 years; recognises the work of local communities, including schools and volunteer groups and Swift Local Groups, to help swifts by reducing pesticide use, planting and encouraging wildflowers, which attract the insects that swifts feed on, and preserving old swift nest sites and creating new ones by building and installing swift boxes, and commends City of Edinburgh Council for, it understands, encouraging the use of swift bricks through the planning process to support this iconic species.