Prisoners build bird boxes for endangered swifts

Swifts are an endangered species. Picture: David Tipling, RSPB Images
Swifts are an endangered species. Picture: David Tipling, RSPB Images
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A MAJOR initiative to boost numbers of threatened swifts by installing prison inmate-built bird boxes on rooftops has taken to the wing.

Members of Lister Housing Co-operative in Lauriston have teamed up with Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) and the Capital’s own jailbirds at Saughton Prison to provide nesting sites for vulnerable swifts on the rooftops of two tenement blocks.

Alistair Cant shows off' one of the team's swift bird boxes. Picture: contributed

Alistair Cant shows off' one of the team's swift bird boxes. Picture: contributed

Bosses at HMP Edinburgh said inmates had found making the nesting boxes a hugely rewarding experience. A prison spokesman said: “We are always happy to engage in projects that are of benefit to the wider community and would encourage prisoners to get involved in such projects.”

Recent figures suggest more than half of the country’s swifts have been lost in the last 20 years, as traditional nesting spots in the cracks and fissures of old buildings are sealed up or destroyed during repairs.

But now the aerial speedsters – which can zip along at more than 70mph – have been given a helping hand thanks to nine nest boxes made by ­inmates at HMP Edinburgh.

Alistair Cant, co-operative director, said: “This is a small but significant effort on our part.

“When it came to our attention that there was both an issue in falling swift numbers and a potential solution, we basically looked at our tenement roofs and started looking for advice on how we could make the boxes and where we could put them.”

Mr Cant said designing swift nests was as much of a challenge as positioning them, as the unusually short-legged birds spend most of their lives in flight and rarely settle on the ground.

He predicted the cedarwood nesting boxes, measuring about 15 centimetres in length and with angled entrances, would prove a hit.

“Basically, the nests have got to be high up and unobstructed as the birds are moving constantly,” he said.

“Swifts return to the same nesting sites year after year. The areas the boxes have been put in are not due for any major work and we’ll be feeding them ourselves, which we’re really excited about.

“The nest boxes have also been designed to be suitable for swifts but they will exclude other birds.”

He added: “The tenants in the two tenement buildings are very excited – I think they love the idea of having something that’s slightly different from normal but also part of the natural world.”

Leaders at Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) said the £300 cash injection to provide the boxes was part of a wider drive to boost biodiversity within the Capital’s historic core.

Chiara Ronchini, EWH energy efficiency manager, said: “Given the decline in their population, we thought it would be a good idea to ­include swifts in the project.

“They tend to nest in densely-built areas, and thanks to biodiversity studies, we’ve found out that many swifts have been spotted in different areas of the city’s world heritage sites across the centre.They love tenements in particular and we thought that’s where we should install the nests.”


SWIFT numbers have plunged by an alarming 52 per cent between 1994 and 2007, according to the Breeding Bird Survey.

Originally a cave, cliff and tree-hole nester, swifts switched to man-made structures during Roman times.

In Edinburgh, they mainly nest in cracks and fissures, or under the eaves in tenements and other traditionally built properties, sometimes with a detrimental effect on the historic fabric.

The nests are often removed and the gaps sealed during repair work, so many nest sites are lost. Swifts will try to nest in the same sites if suitable spaces can be found or artificial sites provided.