DURING a career working in Africa and Ethiopia Chris Mason has seen some of the world’s most incredible birds.

Now he has retired, the 71-year-old is hoping to protect one of Britain’s fastest – the swift.

He is calling on would-be ornithologists to help him log all occurrences of the bird across the Cherwell district and where they nest.

He said: “I would like to make people more aware of, and interested in, their local swifts, and understand that building work and things can often effect them adversely. Then they can get advice on doing things in a swift-friendly way.”

Swifts migrate to Africa for the winter and return to the UK in April and May to breed. They don’t build nests in trees, instead using holes in buildings and eaves.

However, in the past 20 years Mr Mason said the numbers in the South East have dropped by about 40 per cent and one of the reasons is that people fill in these holes without realising birds nest there.

Mr Mason has also won a £7,000 grant from the HDH Wills Trust to make a film called Swifts Stories. The documentary style film is about swifts, their plight and the people and projects working to protect them.

Mr Mason, co-ordinator for Cherwell Swifts Conservation Project, said: “The numbers are reckoned to have gone down in this part of the country by 40 per cent in the last 20 years.

“There are various explanations – one of them is loss of habitat. Because these birds are faithful they come back to the same hole in the same building year after year.

“If that’s not an option for them they might fail to breed. Other factors include climatic change. We are trying to find out where swifts nest at the moment and encourage people to look after them.”

So far the Cherwell group has more than 30 people swift-watching and since 2008 has identified about 160 buildings in the district where they nest.

The former Oxfam country representative in Africa and Ethiopia, Mr Mason, of Hatch Way, Kirtlington, near Bicester, said: “I have always been interested in birds and for various factors over the past 10 to 12 years I have a particular interest in swifts.”

The group previously helped save a family of swifts after they were able to advise builders who were converting a barn in Stonesfield.


  • According to the RSPB the swift is a medium-sized aerial bird, which is a superb flier and even sleeps on the wing.
  • It is plain sooty brown in colour, but in flight against the sky it appears black. It has long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail.
  • Flying at speeds up to 70mph, it breeds across the UK and spends its winters in Africa.