Team Wilder: Swift Man

Ron Cooke is known by his neighbours as the ‘swift man’ thanks to the nest boxes he has put up at his home in Southampton – resulting in an inspiring conservation success story covering his neighbourhood.

Many people have dedicated their time
to helping a particular species. But why
swifts for you?

The more I learn about swifts the more I love them. They’re fascinating birds. They eat, sleep, mate and collect nest materials on the wing. During warm summer evenings it’s like watching the Red Arrows but even better. I like to call them the Black Arrows. You can even
hear the thud as they dart back into the nest box; they fly through like rockets! They also make an incredible screaming sound. But for me, the magic happens when swifts spiral into the sky in communal groups. It’s just stunning.

Why is the species in trouble?
In the 1970s and 1980s I used to see feeding flocks and movements of up to 500 birds flying over the Regents Park area of Southampton, but now a count of just 40 is noteworthy. Swifts naturally breed in mature trees, but they have come to rely on small gaps and holes in
buildings, which provide a safe nesting place. Around the time the decline began I could see that buildings were changing – homes were being sealed up to remove gaps and wooden soffit boards were being replaced with plastic.

Ron Cooke - Swift box

When did you install the first next box
at your house?

Having noticed their decline, I decided to do something to help. I put up my first swift nest box in 2002. I had to be patient, but four years later a swift took up residency in the box. Over time I started to increase the number of nest
boxes and fortunately my neighbours were keen to install some too. Last year there were 15 boxes in place in our neighbourhood and at least 12 of those were occupied by swifts. This summer we’ve increased it 22 boxes and will wait to see what happens.

How did you encourage your neighbours to get involved?
They came to me. They know me as the ‘swift man’. When I explain that swifts are one of the fastest birds in level flight and you’ve got them on your doorstep, people are usually surprised and delighted; they want to be involved. We’ve seen a 1200% increase in swifts just by adding nest boxes, and I believe our neighbourhood nest box colony is the largest in Hampshire.

Swift in swift box

How easy is it to install a nest box?
Really easy. I’ve been making my own boxes for many years and simply hook the box on and off of the house each year. Alternatively you can buy one from Hampshire Swifts.