Judith’s labour of love gives swifts another chance of life on the wing

Judith Wakelam feeding a young swift Pic: Nick Upton

Judith Wakelam feeding a young swift Pic: Nick Upton - Credit: Nic Upton

Over the past 15 years Judith Wakelam has nursed hundreds of lost and stranded swifts before releasing them back into the wild.

Feeding time for a young swift chick Pic: Nick Upton

Feeding time for a young swift chick Pic: Nick Upton - Credit: Nic Upton

Most people make plans to get away over the summer but not Judith Wakelam.

She knows that she won’t be straying far from her Suffolk home during July and August because that’s when she is needed most by the dozens of swifts she helps give a second chance of life each year.

This annual labour of love has happened every summer since 2002 when Judith first found a young swift chick struggling on a path not far from her house in Worlington, near Mildenhall. Despite different wildlife organisations advising her she had little chance of rearing the bird by hand, Judith persisted and with the guidance of the late Chris Mead from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) had success.

Now, having built up years of experience and cared for hundreds of swifts, she is the go-to lady if people in the region find stranded swifts and in a typical year she will care for between 40 and 50 of the aerial beauties. People have travelled as far as the North Norfolk coast or deepest Essex to deliver stranded swifts into her expert hands.

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Most of the swifts she takes in are young birds, who have either tried to fly too early, have fallen from the nest or have been forced to leave because the parents have not returned.

“When I get an adult swift it is usually just as they have arrived from Africa,” explained Judith.

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“They fly incredible distances and are exhausted, and then they hit bad weather - a storm or high winds - which forces them to the ground and they can’t get back up.”

A swift in Judth's outstreched hand Pic Nic Upton

A swift in Judth's outstreched hand Pic Nic Upton - Credit: Nic Upton

Preparing for take-off

In these cases, Judith’s remedy is several hour’s rest in a quiet place in a box with air holes and a few drops of water with a miniscule pinch of glucose or sugar. Once the weather has improved she releases them in an open area from an upstretched arm.

With young swift chicks, rehabilitation is a much more drawn out and painstaking affair.

“Because swifts feed on the wing they can’t pick up food and so have to be hand fed,” continued Judith.

“They are insectivores, so I feed them meal worms, crickets and wax worms plus small flying insects from my garden. After a while they get used to me feeding them and will grab for the food.

“If the chicks are very young - say three or four days old – I will feed them every hour. Older birds I feed up to ten o’clock in the evening then start again at first light.”

Judith says at the peak of each year it is not unusual for her to have up to 15 to 20 orphaned swifts at one time to look after.

“I put them together in groups of similar ages - they are very good tempered, I haven’t encountered an angry swift yet.”

Typically, a swift will fly 42 days after it has hatched and, through years of experience, Judith knows exactly what weight (40 grams plus) and measurements the birds must achieve to be best prepared for that first take off – probably the most important day of their life.

Life on the wing

According to the BTO, these incredible creatures spend almost all their life on the wing, eating, sleeping and mating. They only come to ‘land’ to nest. Our common swifts, which migrate to Africa each year, may fly 300,000 miles non-stop between fledging late one summer and first landing at a potential nest site two summers later.

“When it is time to release a swift I release them from my hand into the breeze, so it gives them lift,” continued Judith.

“Often, they will sit on your hand for several minutes working out which way they will go. I always release in open spaces and have someone with me, a second pair of eyes, in case they don’t fly and need to be retrieved.

“I often use the village cricket pitch to release the birds and one time they even delayed the match for us.”

Flagship project

Judith’s dedication to saving swifts is remarkable as well as being important. These wonderful birds breed in the eaves and gables of buildings but modern and renovated properties exclude them – a situation that, according to the Swift Conservation group, has seen UK numbers halve in the past 20 years.

When an old house in her village, which housed a colony of swifts, was to be demolished back in 2008, Judith contacted Cambridge-based Action for Swifts and asked if it was possible to install swift boxes in the village church to provide alternative lodgings. To date 42 boxes have been installed and last summer 68 swift chicks were ringed prior to them fledging as part of a licensed nest monitoring project.

“The church has become a flagship for swift conservation,” added Judith.

“An elderly man who had grown up in the village stopped me one day to thank me. He said that ever since the church roof had been taken off in 1951 there had been no swifts there but thanks to our efforts they had returned.

“He said seeing all the swifts circling in the sky near the church reminded him of his childhood.”

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