Schools For Swifts: Harrow Beijing to Make and Erect Swift Boxes

Two years ago, after an agonising 12 months wait, the Beijing Swift Project proved, for the first time, that the capital’s Swifts migrate to southern Africa for the northern winter.  The astonishing journey, which sees them fly more than 26,000km per year (and, by the way, many of them probably don’t land at all!), has inspired not only scientists but also everyday Beijingers.  As well as the national mainstream media coverage reaching millions of Chinese, the story of the Beijing Swift has been the subject of science lessons by forward-thinking teachers and features in magazines.  One of the most important aspects of the coverage has been to shine a spotlight on the population decline of the Beijing Swift.  Although hard data is sketchy, it is clear from speaking with local ornithologists that the number of Swifts circling in the skies over Beijing has fallen dramatically.  The main culprit is the loss of nest sites caused by the destruction of traditional buildings, complete with lots of nooks and crannies, which have been replaced by modern, high-rise developments with their straight lines and smooth surfaces – not so good for the Beijing Swift.

I’ve lost count of the number of schools I’ve visited to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, almost without exception, the schoolchildren are very concerned when they hear about the decline and want to do something about it.  One group is planning to write to the CEO of China Soho, the largest real estate developer in Beijing, to ask that they will consider designing in Swift boxes to their new buildings to provide replacement nest sites.  And now, one school is going a step further!

A few weeks ago I met with Paul Shelley, Head of Design and Technology at Harrow Beijing, one of the capital’s international schools.  Paul is keen for students to link their woodwork classes to conservation and, after sharing designs of Swift boxes, the woodwork students at Harrow will, this autumn, build and then erect swift boxes to the campus in Beijing with the hope of attracting Swifts to begin a new colony on site.

The campus of Harrow Beijing. Thanks to the teachers and students, there could soon be the sound of screaming Swifts on summer evenings!

Of course, there is no guarantee that they can attract Swifts and it will take some time, and some encouragement by way of playing Swift calls at the right time of year, to maximise the chances of success…  but what a brilliant initiative!

It’s something I think could catch on…  school campuses offer perfect sites for Swift colonies – often they are large buildings with eaves and with large open spaces to the front, providing Swifts with plenty of access.  It’s certainly something that I’ll include in my briefings on the project in the hope that other schools follow suit.  Who knows – this could be the start of a new initiative – “Schools For Swifts”..!?

Kudos to Harrow, and Paul in particular, for making this happen and I wish Paul and his students the best of luck when the autumn term begins in September.  Watch this space for updates!


Title image: Swifts at the Summer Palace

6 thoughts on “Schools For Swifts: Harrow Beijing to Make and Erect Swift Boxes”

  1. What a great collaboration! Fun for kids to get to make a very concrete contribution. Hope the swifts will make their homes there.

  2. In Israel in the last ten years we too observe the decline of swift population due to vast building renewal which erase nesting sites. Amnonn Hahn, who began his project at a local school, and the organization he established have been countering this painful trend, setting up countless nesting boxes and enlisting help of many swift loving organizations, including The Israel Electric Company, the Discount Bank and the Israel Armed Forces who are quite in to conservation. This year he established a clinic to save fallen fledgelings, feeding and imping them and they have freed many swifts to life instead of death.

    But the problem of disappearing nesting sites has become severe.

    P.S. – I enjoy the Bejing site.

    Shira, Jerusalem

    1. Thank you for the comment, Shira. It seems that the destruction of old buildings is a problem for Swifts all over their range… but it’s so encouraging to hear about all the positive community efforts in many countries to try to support their populations including through the retro-fitting of nest boxes, incorporation of Swift “bricks” into new building design and the efforts to save fallen fledglings. I wasn’t aware of the efforts in Israel, so thank you!

  3. We visited Fillmore Glen State park in the Finger Lakes of New York and are happy to report the renovation of the pavilion did NOT remove the swift colony. It is wonderful to sit at the doorway after a hike to watch them come and go.

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