Birds Beyond Borders is a documentary seeking to understand more about red-listed cavity-nesting birds as they migrate from Europe to Africa. The film project started in 2021 when Common Swifts and House Martins were red-listed. At the time of writing, filming is underway in the East African region. With already limited knowledge about these birds in Africa, filmmakers from the UK and Kenya have teamed up to find out more about their disappearances. In the UK, Hannah Bourne-Taylor has been adamantly campaigning to protect the nesting sites of these birds. In November 2022, Hannah marched through London, her naked body painted to resemble the feathers of a bird. Her goal was to raise awareness of the decline of these birds, marking the beginning of her campaign ‘The Feather Speech.’ In the Leica Nature Blog, Benjamin Ward, the director of Birds Beyond Borders, interviews Hannah to see what she’s learned after a year of campaigning.

© Tim Flach

Why do you feel motived to campaign for cavity nesting birds like swifts and martins?
The short answer is because someone has to. I assumed that someone else more experienced, or with more expertise would campaign for swift bricks but then I realised the birds couldnt wait. I am a person defined by my love of birds, and in particular the finch and swift I rescued, hand raised and released (immortalised in my nature memoir Fledgling). I couldnt bear to be a person who fits the profile of loving nature but is also not doing anything about helping the natural world. I couldnt bear the idea of the future summer when the first swift never returns. So I realised I had no choice but to use my voice on their behalf. I havent looked back. Im not giving up. Every time I hit a stumbling block (which is frequently) or feel stressed (which sadly is most of the time) I think of how remarkable these birds are, and also how long they have existed for and am reminded that what I am campaigning for is their very existence.

A year on from campaigning what have you learnt and discovered? Is there anything different you would have done?
I have learnt continuously so while there are lots of small elements I might do differently, and many things I would do if I had a budget, the campaign has been successful enough to gain huge public support, wide media coverage, and land me meetings with the government, so on paper, it has been successful. But its all pending it will only be successful if I achieve what has become a collective goal: to mandate swift bricks, held by over a hundred thousand British citizens, and championed by many organisations including the RSPB, as well as many politicians very much led by the formidable Zac Goldsmith who the birds are extremely fortunate to have as an ally.

Effecting policy is hard, whats motivates you to keep going?
The birds. Everything I am doing is for the birds.

Has your campaigning for these birds attracted attention from outside the UK?
Yes. Across Europe, and the swifts and House martinsbreeding territories, many small and big conservation organisations have got in touch, asking advice, wanting to share my campaign videos and imagery to help raise awareness. Gibraltars Environment Minister John Cortes has also become an active supporter and a shining light considering swift bricks were added as a planning condition thirty years ago and have successfully stabilised the populations of swifts there.

What has your campaign informed you about the publics relationship with cavity nesting birds/migratory birds like swifts and martinis? Did you think more or less people cared about the loss of these birds?
I didnt really know whether people knew about these birds. Ive learnt two opposing things: that many people, quantified by the 110,000 people who signed my petition, love these birds. The collective narrative from thousands of strangers across Britain is one of love for their feathered neighbours, watching them as children, waiting for these birds to come home, dubbing them the icons of summer.The Swift Local Network is a collection of small, local volunteer-led conservation groups that do so much for local populations. At the same time though, there is a huge amount of ignorance and this ignorance isnt just from the public, but seeps into ecologists who are advising developers. A huge issue is that because swifts and House martins are not protected species (unlike bats for instance), there is no training or mitigation around them which means that often their needs go completely unseen, to their detriment.

Hannah’s love for Swifts extends beyond the UK to the bird’s winter home in Africa. Having lived in Ghana for 8 years, she underwent a personal transformation while rescuing a little Swift (a resident species of Swift in Africa). This experience was critical in channeling her enthusiasm for starting the Feather Speech campaign. Her love for this family of birds and lived experience all inspired her to write her book ‘Fledgling’.

The photos were taken while Birds Beyond Borders were travelling through the rift valley trying to spot migrating birds as they head east. Many of the birds navigate using the rift valley. Here you can see the local guides and maasai trying out the Leica Noctivid binoculars.

What did your time in Ghana make you appreciate about wildlife in the U.K.?
After 8 years of living in rural Ghana, including a stint of three months where a wild finch lived, during daylight hours, on my body, making nests out of my hair, I moved home to England. Immediately I started shadowing the brilliant ornithologist George Candelin, the Keeper of the Swifts, who monitors the iconic colony of swifts in Oxfords Museum of Natural History. There I learnt more about these birds, both the wonder of their lives and the scientific data that was spelling out a nightmare of decline. I spent so much of my time in Ghana outside in the grasslands, and witnessed first hand a globally significant rainforest, Atewa, being both legally and illegally destroyed. The idea of both Biodiversity and Biodiversity Loss was very much real and part of my life, not just a line in a book or a statistic on the news.

How did you come up with idea of the feather speech?
A government petition needs 100,000 signatures in 6 months so I knew my only chance was to get media coverage, and as much as possible otherwise I would never raise enough awareness to reach that almost impossible target. The way I saw it I had two choices to get my non-human, pretty niche petition, into national news: break the law or get naked. Breaking the law would have surely disqualified the petition so then the remaining option was the naked one! I led with creativity and positivity, collaborating with leading artists and photographers, as well as scientists. The date of the launch (November) was to mark the one year anniversary of swifts and House martins being added to the red list.

As an author, what are some of the relationships youve noticed between science and conveying emotions when protecting birds/wildlife?
Tim Flach, the wildlife photographer who took my campaign portrait, has worked with scientists on how portraits of individual animals provoke more empathy in the viewer, than more conventional wildlife imagery. This personalisation was something that worked for me too -as a lone campaigner, not an organisation, many people related to me and so the weakness of being on my own actually seemed to turn into a strength. This was extended by me choosing to use individual images and videos of swifts (rescued swifts in rehab with names). People being introducedto one swift and being told the factual narrative of this one birdslife was very successful.

House martins and swifts were red listed in 2021, what was your feeling at the time you heard that?
I was told before they were added that they were going to be. I had a physical reaction in that I lost my breath. The news came like a thud of sickness and made me panic. One year after they were added, almost to the day, I launched The Feather Speech. 

Common Swifts are the flagship species of Hannah’s campaign, but it’s important to note that her policy could also help House Martins, which have also been known to use swift bricks and boxes. House Martins have become a focal point in our film project,” Ben states. “When we started filming, we didn’t grasp how quickly these birds were disappearing. House Martins (cousins of Barn Swallows) are a different family of birds compared to Swifts but as cavity-nesting birds, sharing a similar ecological niche, they both face similar challenges and levels of decline.

© Jonathan Pomroy

Above, we see an image of House Martins taken by Jonathan Pomroy using artificial nests that have been installed in his home, the left nest box can be used by both swifts and house martins. The installation of artificial nests or swift bricks is a big part of Hannah’s campaign to protect these birds. These nests assure a permanent lifelong home for the birds once they reach the UK and in the case of the House Martins, it means they don’t have to waste energy constructing new nests.

Why do you feel it important to focus on the declines of the nesting sites of swifts and martins?
It is important to focus on the declines of nesting sites for swifts and martins because even if there were insects galore, without nesting sites, they cannot breed, and cannot therefore exist. The loss of nesting sites is inadvertent which, combined with the existing solution, means we can easily reverse the loss and safeguard nesting sites, and therefore significantly help these birds. In the context of 43% of British birds facing national extinction (according to the latest State of Nature Report published in September 2023) these birds are easy to help through this measure, whereas the issue of reversing insect decline is much more complex. If we invest in securing their nesting sites, maybe we will make further steps to help them with their food and wider habitat. These birds are poster children for biodiversity, and for the need for countries to work together to restore nature. And yet they are our closest wild neighbours, so they offer both the international and broad perspective, but also the highly personal perspective too.

Birds Beyond Borders seeks to to learn more about migratory birds like martins and swifts in Kenya. Is there anything youd like to learn about their behaviour when they winter in Africa?
Everything! To me the idea of a bird who weighs about the same as a chocolate bar, and breeds inches away from where we sleep, and then flies to far off places, is a bird I want to know the secrets of. I think if people in Britain and their breeding territories were able to picture what these birds get up to more accurately, they would be even more in awe of them, which would make people care about them more, and therefore make people more likely to act to help support them. They are conservation starters, they are connections, they are real life marvels that can capture the imagination and respect of people young and old, near and far, foreign and family.

“I think we have to start valuing the few birds that make it to our shores,” Ben says. “We’ve noticed a lot of Hirundines have molting issues in Africa due to our changing climate. These issues make their migrations less efficient, with increasingly fewer flying insects to feed upon, their journeys are getting so much harder. Even when the birds reach their breeding sites, a lack of adequate conditions may mean that they do not even attempt to court or mate. This makes policies, that Hannah’s trying to push through to help with nest sites, critical for the populations of these birds.”

Learn more about Hannah here:

Sign the petition make swift bricks compulsory in new housing to help red-listed birds here:

To stay updated, follow Birds Beyond Borders on Instagram

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