The Trinity Swift Project

Trinity postgraduates are working to return native bird species to campus

The swift is a migratory bird which spends around four months of every year in climates like Ireland’s. For many years, swifts were a frequent feature of the Trinity skyline. Most closely related to hummingbirds, they also behave similarly to sand martins and swallows. They are fairly high-flying birds, and their feet and legs have evolved for ease of hanging to vertical walls and roofs, where they typically nest. However, this adaptation makes it difficult to move on the ground as other birds can, and once fallen to the ground they can struggle to get back in the air. Their day-to-day activities are carried out in the air, while in flight: eating insects, drinking, sleeping and mating. They only land for the purpose of breeding and hence this is a very crucial time for their populations. They have a very distinctive wing shape, and can look like a little black boomerang when viewed from afar. 

Up until 2010, Trinity’s Museum Building was home to nests of swifts from the end of April to late August. This is a critical time in their yearly calendar: breeding season. This season was never more crucial for these birds than at present, as an amber listed species. The population of swifts in Ireland has decreased by over 40% in the last 15 years, a cause of major concern. The dramatic decline in their population has been chalked up to a decrease in nesting sites which are often lost in building renovations and refurbishments. According to Swift Conservation Ireland: “Swifts are faithful to their nest sites. Once they have found a place to nest, they will return there every year for the rest of their lives.” They tend to nest in older buildings with gaps in the roof or walls that allow them to nest within the building. 

“Their presence on campus was threatened 10 years ago when essential building works were carried out on the Museum Building”

“Swifts have historically nested in Trinity College,” remarks Jamie Rohu, the man behind the Trinity Swift Project. These birds have been present on the campus since before the 1950s until their presence on campus was threatened 10 years ago when essential building works were carried out on the Museum Building. Scaffolding and surrounding netting involved in the construction work impeded swifts from entering small air vent openings which had become their main residence on College’s grounds and the prolonged time period of the building works resulted in the swifts being unable to gain access to their established nests come Spring time. According to Rohu, the tendency of swifts to nest in colonies means that if a swift migrates to a new area it is likely to nest in or near an established colony, re-using nests developed by previous avian inhabitants. Once the Trinity colony lost its historical nests, the birds were forced to search for new nesting sites which can be difficult given the built up and metropolitan environment surrounding the campus. By the time the scaffolding was removed and the air vents accessible, the swifts had completely abandoned their site. As Rohu says, “The damage was done, ecologically speaking.” 

Third year PhD student Jamie Rohu began the Trinity Swift Project when his PhD advisor Dr Patrick Bresnihan met with Linda Huxley from the Swift Conservation Ireland, who he described as “an incredible individual and amazing campaigner for swifts”. Huxley was interested in the presence of swifts in Trinity and Rohu, a self-confessed lover of all things nature and bird-related, and member of the Green Campus Committee, decided the return of swifts to campus was a project he could certainly get behind. The Environmental Society supported Rohu’s work by funding the purchase of swift calls and the project is currently funded by TCD Environmental Society and is supported by the Green Campus Committee, the School of Natural Sciences, the School of Engineering, the Department of Geology, Estates and Facilities, the Library of Trinity College Dublin and Swift Conservation Ireland. A call is a device which makes a noise, audible to the birds, that imitates breeding swifts. It provides an indicator to the birds that a suitable nesting area is nearby and can attract them to a region. The next hurdle for the Trinity Swift Project was to get permission to play these calls in the summer months. Once they had the go ahead from Professor Patrick Wyse Jackson, curator of the Geology Museum, the calls could be installed. Swifts ideally need to nest in the north facing side of a building, with an overhang to prevent predators entering the nest. The Museum Building luckily ticks all of these boxes and the installation of the calls went ahead with no glitches. Rohu emphasised the patience of those involved, particularly the members of the Engineering and Geology faculties, who put up with the added noise, but says that academic and maintenance staff were more than happy to play their part in this vital project. 

“At least one pair of swifts was seen to begin nesting over the summer months”

The long term goal of the project was to return the swifts to campus but Rohu knew from the beginning that it was unlikely for the calls to have a substantial effect in their first year, particularly as the calls were started in May. But to Rohu’s surprise at least one pair of swifts was seen to begin nesting over the summer months. There were also sightings of swifts in other areas on campus, and though it is unlikely they were nesting, it is clear that the college was re-establishing itself as a hub for the birds. Rohu gave tribute to the effort of a significant number of people, particularly commending the grounds and maintenance staff, many of whom vigilantly watched out for swifts through the summer months. Rohu was quick to point out that he doesn’t believe in wildlife belonging to humans, but that there is definitely something special in a group of people watching over and caring for the welfare of these endangered birds. 

For anyone interested in helping swift populations in your local area, you can get in touch with Swift Conservation Ireland or other local swift conservation groups. It’s important to reach out to conservation groups as call boxes and calls must be carefully planned and installed, or they can provide more of a hindrance than a help. Call boxes are inconspicuous and can be easily installed in schools and other public buildings and interestingly, they are used to and even comfortable with, the presence of people. Clearly their importance transcends Trinity’s campus and they make a considerable difference to helping restore natural Irish wildlife to an area. Rohu believes: “We need to get swifts back. They are a part of our ecology here in Ireland.” They control insect populations, and their decline will have ripple effects for the greater ecosystem. “We need to make sure that this link in the food chain is restored.” In terms of future plans, Rohu would love to introduce another nesting site on campus, once the old sites have been re-established. It certainly seems that the project is well on the way to bringing Trinity swifts back to their historical home. 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the current Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh Chemical Sciences student.