Devil Birds. Filming Swifts in a tower, Oxford. Apus apus

Swift Apus apus

My first filming experience was assisting my father make a 50 minute documentary film called ‘Devil Birds’ Swifts in the tower of Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford.
These are amazing little birds. They are the fasted birds in level flight; they feed, sleep and even mate on the wing.
The adult birds arrived on May the 1st retuning to the same nest year after year. They will merely add fresh material like feathers, leaves, and bits of grass, winged seeds and petals all caught in the air. The material is stuck to the shallow nest with saliva.
Two sometimes three small white eggs are laid. Incubation takes about 19-21 days before the naked chicks hatch.
The breeding coincides with the high insect population and long lay lengths. Parents will catch insects and spiders on the wing. They make a food-ball in their throat with the insects glued together with saliva.
The chicks are very ugly at first.
There is no practice flight. When the chicks dive out the nest, the fledgling swift won’t land again for two years when they will make their own nest.
Fledging 35-56 days. They leave in August and fly south to Africa. The colony of Swifts in Oxford are being studied and they have records show ringed chicks being found in central Africa two days after leaving the nest, whilst the adults are still in Oxford
In early August when the first swifts are migrating south, screaming parties go around banging on the nest entrance to encourage the last stragglers to leave for the epic journeys south.

To show the bird’s point of view, my father decided to attach a camera to the underside of a large kite. He got some fabulous shots of what a bird might see as it dived over a field.
To get the first impression of the chick leaving the 100ft tower he attached a camera on a piano wire and sent to camera hurtling down to wards the ground and then pulling up missing the ground and buildings.
This inspired me to take up wildlife filming as a profession.

To film the birds in the nest we made special nest boxes with glass and mirrors and a light that we could gradually build which the birds got used to and sufficient enough light to film them.
For their size they are long-lived and individuals known to be 19 and even 21 years are on record.
Drop in numbers. An important reason for the drop in numbers is loss of nest sites due to modern building practices. Increasingly swifts are excluded from their traditional sites by repairs which seal all gaps and cover ventilation spaces. Wire mesh or metal or plastic grids are now used to cover ventilation gaps and the renovation of older buildings for new uses usually involves the rigorous pointing of any small gaps or cracks in stonework
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