Hand-rearing of Common Swifts (Apus apus)
The Common Swift is an
especially difficult species to rear successfully. This is not something
that amateurs can easily achieve, and it is best for the Swift if you can
find an expert to take over the task. If this is not possible, the following
is a guide to what needs to be done to raise the bird successfully.
Where to keep a Young Swift
One should never put Swifts in
a birdcage, because they will panic, struggle and damage their feathers. If
the long wing feathers are damaged, the Swift cannot fly. Swifts are best
kept in a half-open plastic box, a minimum of 30 cm long, 20 cm broad and 15
cm high. It is vital that the birds have a clean environment to exercise
their wings; feather soiling from faeces is to be avoided at all costs. So
you must put some kitchen paper in the bottom. You can cover the faeces with
a piece of toilet paper, but the box must be fully cleaned out every day. I
put a nest made of either wood or cork in a dark corner of the box. If this
is not possible, a glass bowl will do, but it must be wrapped in cloth, so
that the chick does not lose body heat.
fosterlings in a half-open container of about 30 x 20 x 15 cm. Photo:
A lone young Swift often just
sits calmly on the nest. But if there are two or more chicks in the nest,
they preen each other and one can hear them make soft purring contact calls.
After feeding, this sound sometimes stops for a little while, but when they
get hungry, it starts up again, first softly, then gaining strength. When
the time comes for the chicks to fly, they stop making this typical nestling
Common Swifts on the nest
often preen each other, especially on the head and throat. This creates a
relaxed mood. When hand rearing, I try to imitate this behaviour. Such soft
preening can calm an exited Swift, and it establishes some confidence
between the bird and the carer.
preening of the throat calms the Swift down. Photo: G. Kaiser
The Common Swift is a pure
insectivore. The adults feed the chicks several times every day with
compressed food balls made up of different kind of insects, all caught in
flight. I try to keep as close as possible to this natural situation, by
feeding the chicks seven times a day with a matching variety of insect
ingredients. The quantity of food given to the chick depends upon its age
and condition. A healthy Swift chick aged from 14 to 18 days upwards will
need about 15 to 18 grams of food each day.
I make up the following
mixture (these quantities are for a three to six week-old Swift):
2 or 3 house
crickets (1-2 cm long)
3 or 4 bee
½ a wax moth
(fishing bait) maggots
dried insect food (not treated with vegetable oil)
vitamin capsule (Brand-name of the German company “Vitakraft”).
This product is sold in the UK
as "Beo Special". It can also be obtained in some other European countries.
If it is not available, you should just omit it from the food mix.
Once a day: Vitamin and
You must never feed Swifts
bread, or any grain, or mealworms or earthworms. These foods are
totally unsuitable, and cause death, or feather malformation, and
then the bird is unable to fly properly, and has to be put down.
You can buy crickets and wax
moth larvae from specialist pet shops, or else by mail order from
internet-based traders such as Livefoods Direct Co.Uk. Drone bees can be
obtained from beekeepers (try your local bee keeping association). Fly
maggots can be purchased from fishing tackle supply shops. They can be
hatched out in any warm place, and if need be can then be frozen. Always
keep adequate supplies in reserve.
Preparation of the meals
First - clean your hands
thoroughly with a disinfectant hand wash.
Every meal must be freshly
prepared. Each Beo-Pearl has to be soaked in water for 30-60 minutes.
The dried insect food has to
be carefully cleaned : Pick out all harmful alien matter, like stone
fragments or twigs, and discard them. Put the dried and cleaned insect
food, together with the deep
frozen items into warm water, and when the food has reached room
temperature, put it in a sieve to drain. Then lay the food out on a plate.
The food should smell good. If, for example, a cricket smells bad, it is
rotten and must be discarded. Remove the bristly legs of the crickets before
feeding. Mash up the maggots and use them as a binder for the dryer food
It does not matter if one or
two ingredients are absent. Just crickets, flies and dried insect food, plus
the supplements should assure success. You do not need to add water if the
dried insect food has been properly soaked.
To feed the
Swift, wrap a tissue carefully around the chick, so that the feathers cannot
become soiled. Photo: Meierjürgen
Before feeding I wrap a paper
tissue loosely around the chick, and hold the bird gently in my left hand.
One has to take great care to avoid any soiling of the feathers from spilled
food. Then I open the bill, very carefully, with a fingernail of my right
hand, and then smoothly insert my forefinger of the left hand into the side
of the bill to keep it open. (See both photos below). This must be done
really very gently indeed so that the fragile bill is not bent or broken.
A Swift's bill is
soft bill carefully with a clean fingernail. Photo: Meierjürgen
Then I put the pieces of food
very carefully deep into the gorge with blunt, round-ended tweezers
(obtainable at pharmacies, or else ask your vet). If you do not put the food
in deep enough, the chick may vomit it out, or eject it by shaking its head.
bill carefully open with the finger. Then, using the blunt tweezers and
taking great care, put the food items deep into the gorge. Photo:
When a chick is really hungry
, I give it some additional food.
When the chick is helpless and
has no strength, you need to start feeding very slowly. You start with one
or two single food items (e.g. flies or drones) and after an hour or so, you
repeat the process. If need be, you do this right through the night.
You then very slowly increase
the Swift's rations until it is eating the normal diet, described earlier.
In such difficult cases, I add at every meal a drop of liquid
(1/2 Amynin + 1/2 water) using
a medical syringe (without the needle).
If the chick sucks your finger
do not discourage it, as this actually helps the feeding process. It makes
it easier to insert the food, which is then readily swallowed.
Unless it is absolutely
essential, I do not de-worm the chicks, but try and keep them as naturally
Monitoring the Chick's Weight
I record each chick's weight
daily. This record gives me the data needed to measure the progress towards
flight, as well as the general health of the bird.
The chick is developing well
and almost ready to fly when it weighs 50 grams or even more over a few
days. In the few days left before it flies, it will refuse food and lose
weight, until it goes down to 40-45 grams, when it will be ready to go.
weighing is essential to record the chick's growth. Photo: Meierjürgen
The birds are ready to go when
the long wing feathers have lost all their whitish protective coverings. The
flight feathers should be about 16 cm long, and extend at least 3,5cm
beyond the tail feathers. Swifts do not practice flying at all. Once they
are launched, they fly, and then stay aloft for two years before they land
to breed. The chicks do however strengthen their flight muscles by
performing "press ups", pressing their wings to the floor and lifting their
bodies high off the ground.
I choose a good-sized lawn, or
a just-cut meadow to release my Swifts on. Then, if something goes wrong,
the chick has a soft landing, and can easily be seen and recovered. For the
"launch" the Swifts need ample airspace and some height up off the ground.
Standing on a small step-ladder gives sufficient height. I never forget to
check for Falcons. If they are around I wait until they have left the area
before making the "launch".
I stand on the ladder, with
the young Swift sitting in my open hand. It will take some time to orient
itself. In most cases it will defecate, and then after a couple of minutes
it will fly away safely and strongly. It is very satisfying to see it flying
high into the sky with one own eyes, or with binoculars! But if it clings to
your hand or crawls backwards, it is too early to let it go. You should take
it back home and look after it for a few more days. Never throw it into the
Swift is ready to fly. The feathers are fully grown, and have no traces left
of the infant down. Photo: Meierjürgen
Weather conditions on the day
of release should be dry, and if possible, (check the satellite images on
the TV) dry as far as the middle of France or even the Pyrenees, because the
birds will mostly head straight for Africa.
Common Swifts receive no help
from their parents. Right from the start they fly perfectly, and achieve
everything by themselves, alone.
A successful recovery
Nestling Swifts fly off,
usually never to be heard of again, so low is the rate of recovery by bird
ringers. So I was very pleased when one of "my“ Swifts, reared in 2004, was
recorded in 2005 at Kronberg in the Taunus hills. All of the hand-raised
Swifts are ringed with a number, and this bird was noted by ornithologists
when it was searching for a nesting place. The ring number confirmed that it
was one of "my" fledgelings.
more information click here
fledgling looked around, oriented itself, then spread its wings and flew
away. Photo: G. Kaiser
This recovery shows that both
the hand rearing techniques, and the diet, were fully successful. This is
important, because, as mentioned above, Common Swifts are very difficult to
foster. Their feathers are easily malformed, or even lost, if anything in
their diet is in any way inadequate. This recovery is confirmation that the
recommended food mixture is sound, and can be applied with confidence.
© APUSlife No. 3124
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Photos of young Swifts
useful for assessing their age
The following two video
clips show the feeding process conducted by a very experienced feeder.
This one shows how an
adult Common Swift is fed; one can see that the bird tries to withdraw its head.
This one shows an
"easy" chick. But many chicks behave like adults, i.e. they are unwilling to
eat, and so must be fed with a gentle assisted feeding technique.
Should you try to feed
a Common Swift yourself, you may find it to be much more difficult than the
videos show! Be patient, calm and always extremely gentle. Treating the bird
forcibly will not make it co-operate any better and will probably severely
injure it. In such cases it is best for you and the bird to give up and take it
to an experienced handler before causing any more suffering from insufficient
food, a broken bill or ruined plumage.
case study to complement Hilde Matthes's instructions: The Hand-rearing of
Common Swifts (Apus apus)
nestling was admitted on 24-06-2008; a typical case of dehydration and
Estimated 15-16 days
old. Weight 22 grams. Normal weight should have been 35-38 grams. Bird was very
thin & cold, eyes sunken, mouth greyish white. Placed into an insulated
container, and warmed very gently from below. For the first 4 hours given oral
infusions of re-hydration fluid every 30 minutes, followed by diluted liquid
feed for 12 hours. (Every 2 hours overnight).
25-06-08 - 24 hours later 24g & hungry.
This patient apart from
acute starvation, most likely due to the weather, had no obvious injuries or
Each bird is different
and needs to be treated accordingly. Beneath each photo I indicate the food
intake needed to attain the ideal growth pattern and weights for this particular
Swift. The appetites and size of individual birds vary, therefore it may be
necessary to adjust the food quantity (up or down) a little to achieve these
Oral infusions should
not be undertaken by the inexperienced. Please refer to: "Veterinary Help for
Common Swifts by Christiane Haupt", the section on Dehydration & Malnutrition.
this to be the most suitable substitute diet for Swifts, Swallows and House
The soft bodies of
large silent crickets (Gryllus assimilis), wax moth larvae (Galleria
mellonella) with pierced skins to aid digestion, dusted with Vitamin &
calcium supplement (insect essentials e.g. from The Birdcare Co.), home bred
flies. Add flies to soak up the juices. (Keep plenty of frozen flies and
crickets in reserve, wax moth larvae have a good shelf life.)
Feeding times: 6am -
9pm at regular intervals, number and size of meals per day as indicated.
2-3 medium crickets 1-2 wax worms 3-4
5-7 medium/large crickets 2-3 wax worms 4-5 flies
8-10 medium/large crickets 3-4 wax worms 5-6 flies
Small quantities of
finely chopped insects were then introduced as detailed in Hilde Matthes's
instructions for "Helpless Chicks" in the section on "Feeding Techniques". The
older the chick, the more difficult. The company of other Swifts is a very
important aid. The care of any Swift is an enormous commitment and should not be
The following series of
photographs illustrate the progress of a captive reared Common Swift nestling.
Feather development and weight compare favourably at every stage to a naturally
reared bird. The number of meals refers to the daily intake.
25-06-08 Weight 28g. 14 small meals chopped up
26-06-08 Weight 31g. 12 normal meals. A more natural environment with 2 smaller
29-06-08 Weight 41g. Now an adequate weight
29-06-08 Weight 41g. 10 normal meals
30-06-08 Weight 43g. 10 normal meals
01-07-08 Weight 46g. 9 normal meals
03-07-08 Weight 50g. 9 normal meals
04-07-08 Weight 52g. 9 normal meals
05-07-08 Weight 53g. 8 normal meals
06-07-08 Weight 52g. 8 normal meals
07-07-08 Weight 50g. 7 normal meals. Press-ups and wing beating start
09-07-08 Weight 50g. 6 normal meals. Appetite reducing
11-07-08 Weight 49g. 6 normal meals
13-07-08 Weight 48g. 6 normal meals
15-07-08 Weight 46g. 6 medium meals
15-07-08 Increased exercising & starting to resist some meals
17-07-08 Weight 45g. 5 medium meals
19-07-08 Weight 44g. 5 small meals
20-07-08 Taking an interest in the outside world
20-07-08 The two companions fledged 24th & 25th July 2008
21-07-08 Weight 43g. Fledged well, joining other swifts high in the sky
This beautiful Common
Swift was the first orphan of 2008, and being quite young at admission made hand
Westray Hand rearing Commonswifts