Posted by Danwei on Monday, August 24, 2009 at 5:00 PM
Swifts in Beijing. Image: source
This article is by guest contributor Michael Rank
Not so long ago summer in Beijing simply wasn't summer without the constant screaming of swifts (or apus apus in Latin) over the gates and hutongs, but in recent years the skies have fallen silent due to the wholesale destruction of traditional buildings and ever growing pollution, according to recent newspaper reports.
Beijing's old-style courtyard buildings, temples and city gates were ideal nesting places for these acrobatic harbingers of summer, and the concrete and steel monstrosities that have replaced them have proved disastrous for the birds which come to breed in Beijing after spending the winter as far away as southern Africa.
Professor Zheng Guangmei (郑光美) of Beijing Normal University, chairman of the China Ornithological Society, recalls cycling past the moat around the Forbidden City in June 1965 and seeing almost 400 of the dark, swallow-like birds. But when another expert, Gao Wu (高武), a retired zoology professor from Capital Normal University, counted swifts at the same spot in July 2000 he noted only 80.
Likewise, Zhao Xinru (赵欣如), a birder and researcher at Beijing Normal University, remembers how when he was at primary school he would see dozens of swifts flying over Zhengyang gate and the birds would sometimes fly into classrooms in search of a nesting site, but this is unthinkable nowadays.
Swifts － 雨燕 ("rain swallows") or 楼燕 ("pagoda swallows") in Chinese － have been synonymous with Beijing since 1417 － indeed an alternative name for the city is Yanjing (燕京) or "swift capital" (admittedly 燕 can mean swift or swallow in Chinese, but one can't help feeling that it refers to the more numerous swift so far as Beijing is concerned).
The swift's demise seems to date back as far back as the early 1950s when the city gates started to be demolished, the first to go being Chang'an Left and Right Gates in 1952, and by the time Dongzhimen was razed in 1969 it seems to have been too late.
"At the same time temples and pagodas were also demolished for various reasons," says Gao. "Suitable habitats for swifts gradually disappeared, which is the main reason why their numbers have fallen."
But worse was to come, and the birds' fate was sealed in the 1980s when some of the relatively few old buildings that had survived the destruction of the Mao era were renovated and netting was placed around the eves to protect them from birds. Not only this, but vast forests of concrete and glass high-rises were built that were even more hostile territory and have resulted in further declines in swift numbers.
The Bird's Nest stadium and five statues inspired by swifts were symbols of the Beijing Olympics that should have been good news for birds, but in fact the Bird's Nest was particularly hostile territory for swifts as it was surrounded by concrete-covered squares that were totally unsuitable habitat.
A few flyovers, including those at Temple of Heavenly Peace and Jianguomen, have managed to attract nesting swifts, but by and large the outlook seems bleak.
Gao says attempts to "green" Beijing through the unimaginative planting of vast numbers of alien evergreens and the excessive manicuring of parks and other green spaces have been a disaster for swifts and other indigenous species.
"There needs to be exchange [of views and information] between parks, water, tourism and environmental departments as well as with planning and construction," he says, but there is far too little of this.
This lack of communication has resulted in "tragedies" which are "completely avoidable", such as the decision to renovate the Qiniandian (祈年殿) pavilion in the Forbidden City during the swifts' breeding season, Gao added.
What’s more, many officials in charge of preserving ancient buildings are totally unsympathetic to the needs of birds. When Gao raised the matter of how netting around the eves prevents swifts from nesting, one of them sneered, "They're pests, why should they be protected?"
Similarly, when he has raised the subject of creating suitable nesting places for swifts with architects designing the vast numbers of new buildings springing up all over Beijing, the response has been, “This will increase costs, who’s going to pay?”
A few swifts can still be seen swooping over Qian Men and the Drum Tower, but they are mere reminders of the vast numbers that few over the city a few decades ago.
• It's not just in China that swifts are disappearing.
Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reports that they have declined by 47% in the UK over the last 10 years, and, as in Beijing, "A major cause of this decline is believed to be the loss of nest sites through building improvement or demolition."
It has launched a survey to find out where where swifts are still seen and could be nesting, and has suggested four simple ways of protecting swifts, including leaving their nest sites undisturbed.
The RSPB recommends:
• Leaving existing nest sites undisturbed where possible
• Making new nest access holes at exactly the same spot to match any that need to be blocked for repairs
• Create some internal nest spaces at the design stage of new housing
• If none of the above are possible, fit a custom-made swift box.
So maybe birders visiting China could bring a swift box or two in their luggage, or at least bring some pictures of swift boxes on buildings to show Beijing birders.
Links and Sources
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Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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