THIS is no ordinary man putting up nestboxes at Dúlra’s house this week.
Mark Smyth has for many years led a crusade to help one of the world’s most incredible birds, the swift.
Mark realised their numbers were plummeting long before the big bird organisations even accepted it – he saw it with his own eyes above his native Antrim. “When I went to Antrim Primary, the skies above it were black with swifts. Now we don’t really see them,” said the 61-year-old.
And, when his daily work in Asda in Antrim is done, he travels the length and breadth of the country to give these specialised birds what they most need – nesting sites.
But he accepts that right now, it’s a losing battle. Time after time he’s seen colonies wiped out as old buildings are refurbished and rebuilt. No thought is given to the birds nesting there, and the new builds are so perfect that there are no crevices for them to nest in.

36 nesting pairs were evicted from an Orange hall in his home town, while at the old police station, 14 pairs were left homeless when foam was pumped into the roof cavities. “It takes years for swifts to accept a new site,” says Mark. “They nested in all the old Ulster mills and factories and castles, but as they closed, swifts were excluded. And no-one was monitoring it.”
He and pal Peter Cush, now retired from the Environment Agency, will go anywhere and do anything to help this incredible bird. But they know that all their efforts are just a drop in the ocean for a bird whose population has fallen here by 59 per cent in three decades, and drops by another five per cent every year.
“Time is running out for the swift,” Peter told Dúlra this week. “Everything is working against this poor wee bird. We need big government and local government to start taking this seriously. It can be done. They should say they want swifts all through Belfast to enhance all our lives, and then incorporate this into homes and buildings that are more friendly to nature, where nest bricks are mandatory.
“Myself and Mark will always be tinkering around at the edges of this problem – we need action from those who can get things done at scale, like the Housing Executive, for example.”
Mark’s self-confessed obsession with swifts started around the year 2000 when a neighbour in the Stiles estate left a family of birds homeless by replacing wooden eaves with PVC ones. Mark thought he’d give them a home instead and mimicked the old cavity in his own eaves. But the swifts never returned. “They were the only pair in the housing estate,” he said.
And so the journey of discovery on how to attract swifts began. He teamed up with Peter and, eventually, a decade ago, the two attended a swift conference in Germany where enthusiasts across Europe were wrestling with the same problem. Why won’t swifts take to a new nest site like, say, blue tits?


“It was the Dutch who first realised that playing the birds’ call attracts them to a site,” said Peter. “Where a blue tit will investigate all boxes, swifts don’t bother doing that. They fly on by – unless they hear another swift.”
Then came the breakthrough – a German enthusiast made a CD of swift calls which, despite the price – “It was 25 quid!” said Mark –  became a bestseller around Europe, at least among swift buffs!
“I got a car speaker and attached it to a CD player and played it from the window using the power supply from the hot press,” said Mark.
Today it’s much easier – a mini-gadget allows their song to be played on a timer. “You can’t guarantee swifts will come, but it’s as close to a silver bullet as you can get,” said Mark. Five years after he first put up a box, one nested. This year he had eight of the 23 swift boxes on his home – yes 23! – occupied. And Peter had two pair in his home in Stranmillis this year. Mini-cameras inside the boxes let them watch the families being reared.
Last year Mark used his expertise to finally discover where the Irish swifts migrate to. A swift which bred at his home was fitted with a tiny geolocator on its back. “People think it gives real-time information through a satellite but it doesn’t. You have to catch the same bird again and then collect the data from the chip,” he said.
This spring they were delighted to see the bird return. “The guy downloaded the chip in my kitchen and it was just incredible,” Mark said. “You could see its whole route through Spain into West Africa, then it knocked around the Congo for a while before ending up near Kruger National Park in South Africa and finally Mozambique. After Christmas it started to move back up north again.”
Their love of this aerial bird – it only lands to breed, even sleeping in the air – is contagious. But they admit it’s too big a responsibility for just two people. “If we lose the swift, at least I’ll be able to say we did our best,” said Peter in resignation. But they’ve had some notable successes.
“We can be lucky and find out about work on a building where swifts nests, like the old workhouse in Enniskillen,” said Peter “Mark spotted it – remember he’s just an ordinary guy – and out of his own volition he went down there and spoke to the workmen on the job. He saved 13 pairs.
“It takes swifts a long time to choose a nest. They can live more than 20 years – so if you knock off a few breeding swifts, that can lead to a big gap in their population. The Celtic Tiger was a disaster for swifts across Ireland as so much building work went on.”
Their finest success was at the Crescent Arts Centre on Belfast’s University Road. Sixty pairs nest in the 149-year-old building – “Possibly the biggest colony in Ireland,” said Mark. But an £8 million refurbishment programme was destined to put them in danger until he intervened. The architects and contractors were able to keep the colony by including swift bricks – which are hollow with wee entrance holes for them to nest in.  They even introduced a scheme to sponsor each brick!
Dúlra’s own street had a single pair of swifts in a house opposite until three years ago when a new roof was put on and the birds never came back.
Peter, who helped put up the three boxes on Dúlra’s gable wall this week, said he still hopes the swift can be saved.
“We’re in a fantastic period of history where we’re finally aware of the problems faced by our environment. Now it’s time for some proper action.
“It’s about reducing carbon emissions and ameliorating climate change but also about having more biodiversity. And the Belfast swift really is a symbol of local and global conservation – by helping it, we are also increasing biodiversity in Mozambique 9,000kms away! That’s something truly incredible.”
With such a big journey, the average swift – gabhlán gaoithe in Irish – only spends 106 days over the rooftops of Belfast. This spring, thanks to Mark and Peter, Dúlra will be blasting its screeching call into the heavens in the hope of attracting a nesting pair, or even three! The fightback has begun.
•If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.