On June 20 1855, a smattering of Oxford dons and other college notables gathered as the foundation stone was laid for what was intended to be a dedicated science museum at the university.
The design of the building had been settled upon following an open competition where each architectural drawing was submitted anonymously. The winning entry was all variegated brick and gothic stone, with great halls of plate glass and steel girders designed to house the various curiosities amassed in the university cellars. As its centrepiece above the main entrance was a tower, richly decorated, and with a steep arching turret studded with ventilation flues.
Nature thrives on unintended consequences. Soon in the summer months a high-pitched shrieking could be heard from the ventilation shafts in the tower
The lofty notion of its design was that wind would sweep in through the holes and cool the exhibition rooms below. In practice, even on the blusteriest day, no such thing occurred. But nature thrives on unintended consequences. Soon in the summer months a high-pitched shrieking could be heard from the ventilation shafts in the tower. In this grand folly, a flock of swifts had taken up rooms.
What started as an accident has grown into one of the longest-running studies of any species of bird, anywhere in the world. In 1948, David Lack, the British evolutionary biologist, who was director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in Oxford, started a project recording the tower swifts. His findings were first published in 1956 in his book Swifts in a Tower, detailing the remarkable lives of Apus apus, which migrate to Britain from Africa to breed each year, a journey spanning some 6,000 miles.
Now, to mark the 70th anniversary of the project, Lack’s son Andrew has republished the book in association with the RSPB, updating it with the latest breeding trends of the swift and investigating its decline – numbers have plummeted by 47 per cent since 1989.
On the approach to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History you hear them long before you see them: the high-pitched shrieks which in medieval England earned them the nickname “the devil’s bird”. Ted Hughes’s poem “Swifts” describes how the birds “materialise at the tip of a long scream”.
The swift is immediately recognisable for its boomerang-shaped wings which make it the fastest bird in powered flight ever recorded. While the peregrine falcon achieves higher speeds, that is by plummeting rather than beating wings. Swifts never touch down, and even feed on the go; on a good day, a pair can gobble up 20,000 insects and spiders between them.
That is why we are in awe of birds generally. We would love to be able to fly and do what they do
I meet Dr Andrew Lack outside the tower with the swifts wheeling high above his head. The 64-year-old, who is a senior lecturer in environmental biology at Oxford Brookes University, is an avowed birder like his father before him and says he has long shared his passion for swifts. “It is the flight,” he says. “Everything about the swift is the flight. That is why we are in awe of birds generally. We would love to be able to fly and do what they do.”
Lack, a father of four, was two when the original Swifts in a Tower was published. He visited the tower several times as a boy and one of his earliest memories was his father coming home with his thumb swaddled in a bandage.
“He had been scratched while trying to ring a swift in the tower and the wound had gone septic,” he recalls.
One of four siblings, he was 19 when his father died of lymphoma at the age of 62 in 1973. As he sat down to write a new chapter to accompany his father’s original book, he says he could feel him watching over his shoulder. “We were very close in many ways,” he says. “You revere your father in your teens, but I never knew him as an independent adult. Re-reading the book, what it brought back for me was my father’s enthusiasm and interest.”
Lack is at pains to point out the swift study is far from simply the fruits of his father’s work. In particular he cites two men: Roy Overall, an amateur ornithologist who worked at the tower between 1962 and 2010, helping ring the swifts and keep the glass-backed observation boxes clean. Lack estimates that Overall has climbed the tower’s spiral stairs more than 1,200 times. He also gives honourable mention to George Candlein, the current possessor of the title “keeper of the swifts”.
At the museum we only make it as far as a bolted oak door which marks the entrance to the tower. During breeding season (typically June to August) it is kept on lockdown for fear of disturbing the birds. The tower is always kept dark – staff are required to wear dark clothing and the glass backing of each nest is covered with a black cloth. Since 2004, four video cameras have been trained upon four nesting boxes, providing a live feed which is displayed on a screen at the museum entrance.
This year has so far proven a profitable one for the swifts. As of the latest count on July 9, there were 68 young and 27 adults in 36 active nests.
Warm summers are excellent news for swifts as the weather engenders swarms of insects upon which they feed. The largest number of young fledged in any one year in the tower was 141 in 2006 – an exceptionally warm summer with the warmest July on record. Last year’s warm June and July, meanwhile, produced the best nest count since 2010, with 58 fledged from 29 nests.
Where do they go? Swifts ringed at the tower have been recorded travelling as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Zambia.
However, even good years cannot halt a marked decline for the swift, a pattern being replicated across its migratory path.
The year 2008 marked the beginning of what Lack calls a “precipitous” decline in numbers at the tower. From 2011-16, the average number of young raised was 33.7, while 2012 produced the fewest young swifts on record, with only 13 fledged in total.
Part of the reason for the decline in swift populations nationwide is the fact that people nowadays are far more willing to renovate their homes. New-builds tend not to provide the nooks and crannies such as those within the tower where the birds are more likely to build their nests. While some migratory species are similarly struggling as a result of climate change, according to Lack, if anything the fact the average temperature of a British summer has increased should improve the breeding chances for swifts.
For Lack, the main issue is intensive agriculture and the liberal use of pesticides doused upon farmland all over Europe which is leading to a collapse in insect populations, with ramifications higher up the food chain.
“When I was a child, you used to have to wash insects off the windscreen and you just don’t do that any more,” he says. “It is sad. I think it is down to food supply.”
Still, despite the scale of the challenge, he remains confident that come summer in another 60 years’ time the swift will continue to call in on the tower, a resting stop on its never-ending journey around the world.
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