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Luring ‘devil birds’ back to church roofs

25 May 2018

Ian Tattum celebrates the return of the swift with a reflection on habitats

Nick Upton/Alamy

Multiple-compartment swift boxes under the eaves of a house in Cambridge

Multiple-compartment swift boxes under the eaves of a house in Cambridge

FOR the past five years, the “devil birds” have resisted all my attempts to persuade them to make their home on our church. Just how swifts acquired this sinister-sounding nickname is a mystery, and it may simply be because of their acrobatic ability and the screeching sound of their voice. To me, though, swifts are true birds of heaven — like the crane and the eagle, but with a superior claim.

My enchantment with swifts began about 20 years ago in Spain, when a squadron of these garrulous birds swept past me while I was standing on the roof of a converted monastery. What a counterpoint they provided, I thought, to the lonely eagle, as a symbol for God. Swifts are nearly always in company and always in conversation.

The more I discovered about these birds, the more my wonder grew. They gained their scientific name from their appearance of footlessness, and their legs are so feeble because they hardly ever need them. Once it leaves its nest on fledging, the young swift will not alight again until it is ready to breed — on average, three years later. It will sleep on the wing and, as observed by Gilbert White, can mate in mid-air.

On a normal day, a swift will fly 500 miles, and they have been recorded flying at 10,000 feet. Latest researches indicate that the swift is a close relative of the hummingbird.

LIKE many birds that are native or visit our shores annually, swifts are becoming rarer. Their time here is short: they arrive in May and have normally headed back to Africa by the middle of August; and they are finding it increasingly difficult to make a home here, owing to a change in human habits. Now that all holes in eaves are blocked, and roofs are kept in good repair, the nooks and crannies that the swifts once occupied are disappearing. Fortunately, churches make perfect artificial cliffs, and, with the addition of custom-made swift boxes, provide an ideal alternative.

Or so I thought, when I installed our boxes five years ago. I followed the instructions about where to site them: high up, away from direct sunlight, and where any prospective tenants would have a clear flight path to their new home. A local roofing company kindly did the climbing and installing.

But that was only phase one. The advice was that a potential resident would be more inclined to investigate a likely nesting-site if first duped into believing that there was already a colony present. To this end, we play a CD of roosting swifts from the window of the vicarage next door. Unfortunately, most of the adjacent houses are terraces; so a cacophony of screeches bounces around the street, causing even more confusion to passers-by than to the poor swifts, who find themselves chasing echoes. So far, the swift boxes have been untried, except by a couple of families of intrepid great tits.

MANY of the mind-boggling things that we now know about swifts are due to the researches of the ornithologist David Lack (Faith, 22 December 2017). In 1948, Lack was appointed director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Oxford, and almost immediately began his famous swift project. He commissioned special glass-backed swift boxes, which were installed in the tower of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, and, with his team, began to make detailed observations (the project is still running today).

The manner in which swifts had adapted to life in the air led Lack to think that they would make a perfect subject for studying evolution. And, in 1956, he published Swifts in a Tower, which — like his earlier, ground-breaking The Life of the Robin — employed literary and historical allusions to communicate his scientific researches to the general public. But the book also contained undercurrents that revealed his unease about the increasing rupture between religion and science.

THE Museum of Natural History in Oxford was, like the more famous one in Kensington, founded to the glory of God as much as the celebration of science. Lack pictured the day in June 1855 when the cornerstone of the building was laid, and described how “a group of bearded and reverend scientists: a combination now, alas, unknown”, sang the Benedicite“O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord” — and he speculated that, at that very moment, the circling swifts would have screeched in reply as they soared over their future home.

It is no coincidence that he was working at the same time on his book Evolution Theory and Christian Belief, in which he recommended more modesty from both sides of the growing divide, and summed up with a quotation from Pope’s Essay on Man:

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

ONE of Lack’s many wise observations in Swifts in a Tower has inspired another dimension of what we are seeking to achieve at St Barnabas’s: “After marvelling at swifts and eagles . . . let us remember that the world is inhabited chiefly by rats and sparrows.” There is a temptation to see care for nature as primarily a concern for the protection and salvation of the exotic. Simultaneously with the growth in adventurous activities such as whale-watching, urban natural habitats have shrunk, and creatures small and tiny are declining even more steeply in numbers.

The destruction of the food chain is one of the suspected reasons (pollution and home improvements are others) for the sharp fall in numbers of urban sparrows; so, this year, a sparrow terrace has joined the swift boxes in the hope that our small inner-city garden might provide a refuge for them, too.

One of our aims is to make the garden around the church as rich a habitat as possible, all year round, for insects and spiders as well as birds. To this end, we encourage the resident ivy and protect the hawthorn hedge, both of which provide a berth for over-wintering invertebrates, nectar for flying insects, and berries for hungry birds.

To complement our many wild corners, we also have large areas of lawn, so that people can sit and picnic, and children can run about, and our garden provides a hospitable space for the local human population, too.

THIS year, I have been working with a neighbouring primary school, Riversdale, to launch a year-long school science project for the younger children, aimed at studying and engaging with the natural life in the churchyard, and learning about its interdependence. Most years, we have all the common butterflies, usually starting with brimstones and orange tips; nesting wrens, blackbirds, and robins; and even some elusive grasshoppers to spot.

This initiative, in turn, was in response to an imaginative idea that the school came up with last year: to raise awareness of homelessness by looking at the habitats of local plants and animals — a creative take on Matthew 8.20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Perhaps, as we wonder at the return of the swifts this month from Africa, we can be inspired to enlarge our sense of the way in which our churches can provide a place of belonging — for human and non-human fellow creatures alike.

The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, in south London.

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