Beijing’s pilot project retrofits building to revive avian population
Alok Gupta
Beijing Swifts flying over a traditional building. /VCG Photo

Beijing Swifts flying over a traditional building. /VCG Photo

During the era of rapid urbanization in Beijing in the 1980s, old traditional buildings were bulldozed, paving the way for office towers and housing complexes.  

While the new buildings provided homes to thousands of people migrating from the rural hinterland to the cities, it wiped out breeding grounds for a large population of birds.   

Among the victims were city’s native Beijing Swift — a  bird known for making an annual sojourn to South Africa, flying thousands of miles non-stop.

Airborne for most of their lifetimes, these palm-sized birds eat, sleep, drink and even mate in the air, the first-ever study on Beijing Swift in 2015 found.

They only descend to nest in Beijing’s traditional buildings for laying their eggs and rearing their offspring. 

The origin of the Beijing Swifts and their links to the city dates back to the 15th century. They prey on stinging and biting insects, protecting the human population from an array of infections.

“The Swift’s presence is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. With the loss of many traditional buildings, Beijing’s Swift population is thought to have declined by as much as 60 percent in recent decades,” Terry Townshend, founder of Birding Beijing told CGTN.

But the plummeting avian population is not just limited to Beijing. In recent years, nearly 50 percent of the human population resides in cities built mostly after clearing natural areas.

Covering nearly three percent of the Earth’s area, cities are adversely impacting the diversity of native species. In many cities, the population of sparrows, cuckoos and other native birds have been nearly wiped out by the alarming rate of urbanization. 

Raising awareness among the next generation

Concerned over the depleting avian population in the city, a group of environmentalists in 2015 under the Beijing Swift Project started sharing the findings of the bird among the city’s schoolchildren.

The awareness sessions held at 2nd High School affiliated to Beijing Normal University, Beijing No.13 High School, the High School affiliated to the Renmin University of China, and Keystone Academy drew an impressive response from the students.

“Beijing Swifts amazed me the most. It’s such an incredible creature that lives right here in Beijing, in the most crowded capital city, the most unlikely of places,” Chen Yanzhi, a student of Keystone Academy, said.

Fascinated by the Beijing Swifts airborne life, a few students in a bid to revive the bird’s number, decided to erect specially designed nests on the rooftops of their school buildings.

A few Swifts flew across the artificial nests, raising hopes of their breeding.

Officials from Birding Beijing and SOHO at the launch event to retrofit buildings to revive the number of Beijing Swifts in Beijing.

Officials from Birding Beijing and SOHO at the launch event to retrofit buildings to revive the number of Beijing Swifts in Beijing.

Davids approach real estate Goliaths

Students decided to take their initiative to the next level. They wrote letters to city-based real estate tycoons requesting them to retrofit buildings to ensure birds can make nest and breed.

Taking the student’s plea seriously, SOHO, a Chinese office developer with many buildings in Beijing, responded on a positive note.

Shiyi Pan, chairman of SOHO China, announced the retrofitting of Qianmen Avenue, a building located next to Zheng Yang Gate, home to the largest Beijing Swift colony.

The building management will be piloting the fitting of nest boxes for Beijing Swifts ahead of the 2020 breeding season.

“We have designed and built buildings for over 20 years. Our focus has always been on humans and how to make our lives better,” Pan said, addressing an event attended by school students on Thursday evening.

“In the future, we need to consider biodiversity and to create a better living environment for both citizens and wildlife, like Beijing Swifts,” he added.

This project shows that, with a little consideration, new buildings can make a positive contribution to biodiversity, Townshend added.