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of nest sites caused by the destruction of traditional buildings, complete with lots of nooks and crannies, which have been replaced by modern, high-rise developments with their straight lines and smooth surfaces – not so good for the Beijing Swift.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

Beijing Swifts 2017

I spent Saturday morning with Belgium-based Lyndon Kearsley and the Beijing team at the Summer Palace for the annual Swift banding project.  Led by Professor Zhao Xinru of the China Birdwatching Society, in collaboration with scientists from the UK, including the BTO, Sweden and Belgium, the project has recently been responsible for discovering the Beijing Swift’s wintering grounds and migration route, proving for the first time that these incredible aviators travel to southern Africa and back every year.

This year, we are hoping to prove an even more incredible aspect of the Beijing Swift’s lifestyle.  In 2016 selected birds were fitted with a new type of technology – accelerometers – which can, in short, establish whether the birds are moving or stationary.  Having this morning recaptured seven birds fitted with accelerometers in 2016, and provided the data are good, we should be able to show whether these birds have spent the nine months away from Beijing in continuous flight, just as Susanne Åkesson and her team have recently proved with Swifts from Sweden.  Wouldn’t that be something?

The analysis of the data will take some weeks and months to complete, so we don’t expect to have an answer quickly.  In the meantime, here is a short video of the Beijing Swifts in slow motion, taken this morning at the Summer Palace.  One striking aspect is the sound of the calls when slowed down…  my advice is don’t play this video if alone at night or at Halloween – it’s almost creepy!

Huge credit to our Chinese colleagues, especially Professor Zhao Xinru, Wu Lan, Liu Yang and the army of volunteers who work so hard to make the project a success.  And big thanks to Dick Newell, Chris Hewson, Lyndon Kearsley, Susanne Åkesson, Rob Jolliffe, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris who have all played a key role in the Beijing Swift Project over the last few years.