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From inspiring a mascot for the 2008 Summer Olympics to promoting the city’s UNESCO application, Beijing swifts are giving wings to biodiversity awareness in China’s capital

By Xu Jing , Du Yan Updated Dec.1

Beijing swift-inspired designs of traditional kites created as NFT-like digital assets

Beijing swifts, or Apus apus pekinensis, share more than a name with the Chinese capital. A subspecies of the common swift, the bird was named by British naturalist and diplomat Robert Swinhoe in 1870.  

In July and August each year, Beijing swifts leave their namesake city for southern Africa via the Eurasian continent. The bird species inspired one of the five mascots of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Nini, and a series of NFT-like digital assets to promote the capital’s campaign to list its Central Axis as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2024.  

In an exclusive interview with China News Service (CNS), Shi Yang from the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center told CNS about the stories behind researching Beijing swift migration patterns, as well as the capital’s plans for biodiversity protection.  

CNS: How do these birds live in a modern metropolis like Beijing?  

Shi Yang: Every spring, Beijing swifts return to the city from Africa for the breeding season. The swifts often nest at historical places such as Zhengyangmen Gate in central Beijing, Kuoru Pavilion at the Summer Palace, and Jiulong Pavilion at Beihai Park. Their preference for ancient buildings chimes with their natural habitat. Beijing boasts many ancient wooden buildings with high eaves, crisscrossed beams and rafters that provide ready-made nest sites for swifts to breed and seek shelter from predators. Also, tall buildings offer a comfortable vertical distance for swifts, which rarely touch the ground, to take flight.  

Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing did not have modern high-rise buildings, so swifts mainly nested in imperial buildings, temples and pagodas. These nimble birds became an ecological symbol of the ancient city. As Beijing grew more vertical, swifts began making homes in tall modern structures such as overpasses.  

According to recent surveys, swifts that dwell in modern structures actually outnumber those in ancient buildings. Apart from sightings near tall buildings in the city, swifts were spotted in suburban areas. All this reflects an expanding habitat thanks to Beijing’s increasingly rich biodiversity.  

CNS: How was their migration route tracked, and where do they go?  

SY: Their migration route had been a mystery until recently. In 2014, Chinese and foreign ornithologists, together with bird banding experts, tagged dozens of Beijing swifts with geolocators. They then flew over the surrounding mountains, carrying what looked like little schoolbags on their backs.  

According to the data, Beijing swifts can clock up to 30,000 kilometers on a single winter trip, crossing Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and the Tianshan Mountains to reach the Red Sea. They traverse 37 countries before arriving in southern Africa, and return to Beijing the following spring. The route passes countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, so this bird could be considered an ecological ambassador of the Belt and Road.  

The monitoring revealed that swifts seldom travel over open water. They have several stopovers, mainly in the Congo Basin, the southwestern coast of the Red Sea and the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. Also, food supply affects the time and distances of their migration. For instance, swifts take longer routes on their southward migration in autumn than their return north in spring.  

Beijing Wildlife Conservation Association and Beijing Xuanwu Juvenile Science and Technology Museum launched a survey of Beijing swifts in 2017, recruiting many volunteers to monitor 30 known swift spots across the city.  

As a wildlife conservation organization, we hope to learn more about swifts, the areas they forage, as well as where the swifts, who fly in flocks in the evening, go at night. With technological advancements such as lighter geolocators and better artificial nests, we will carry out analysis and research more accurately to reduce threats to the swifts, and improve our work in a more targeted way.  

CNS: Beijing swifts appeared in an essay question on this year’s national college entrance exam in Beijing, which prompted students for suggestions on how to protect the species. How has awareness of Beijing swifts increased and what does this mean for conservation?  

SY: People and swifts have lived under the same roofs in China for thousands of years. In ancient Chinese poems, we find traces of people’s affection for this bird. In recent years, the Beijing swift has received increased public attention, but it is not really a popular species for researchers, nor it is an endangered species. However, from an ecological perspective, ordinary species are equally important. It is estimated that the Beijing swift population has surpassed 10,000, a significant increase from over a decade ago.  

Over the years, Beijing developed large scale ecological areas, covered by diverse vegetation and connected by ecological corridors, which form an integrated ecosystem. In the meantime, the city has built dozens of urban forests, and 79 nature reserves totaling 368,000 hectares, placing 90 percent of the city’s key wild fauna and flora under protection.  

According to an official list of Beijing’s terrestrial wildlife released in October 2021, the 16,400 square kilometer city is home to 596 wildlife species, including over 500 wild birds, underscoring its profile as one of the most biodiverse metropolises in the world.  
The Beijing swift has deservedly inspired the first [NFT-like] digital asset to promote Beijing’s campaign to list its Central Axis as a world heritage site. As the only bird named after Beijing, Beijing swifts have nested on Zhengyangmen Gate for over 600 years. They are true Beijing natives, and representatives of the city’s history, culture and ecology.  

As wildlife researchers, we hope Beijing swifts not only help to promote the culture of the ancient capital to the rest of the world, but also attract public attention for wild birds and other wildlife, further bolstering Beijing’s efforts to create a city of biodiversity.

Beijing swifts fly over the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, May 19, 2020