The habi-sabi swift box. A detailed review.

October 02, 2013  •  1 Comment


This will be the first review (of anything) on this blog - and probably the last also. I don't tend to review anything unless I think there's really something to it.

However, on the occasion of seeing quite possibly the last of the house martins in 2013 (fifty or so all flying south in a great big chattery flock in morning murk above the house today) I thought I would review my latest purchase for my beloved swifts..... the habi-sabi swift box.

The same review will (I hope) shortly be published on the excellent nhbs website if approved, here.





The habi-sabi swift box.

A detailed “first impressions” review.

By Doug Mackenzie Dodds





As swifts’ traditional nesting sites are being lost (as we change our wooden soffits and fascias with close-fitting plastic replacements or re-point our brickwork & re-tile our roofs) their numbers have crashed over the UK over the past couple of decades.

Swifts tend mainly to choose unimproved, pre-war buildings in which to nest; ignoring new-builds in the main as there is rarely any provision for nesting swifts incorporated (deliberately or accidentally) into modern houses and buildings. This is not the same in a few countries on the continent but sadly our governments and planners here are slow to catch on.

The sound (and sight) of screeching swifts dashing through our towns for only three months each year epitomises summer in Britain, but unless we provide more nest sites for them now, very soon British summers will be bereft of swifts.

How can we try to ensure this does not happen? It’s easy really. We can provide nesting sites either by leaving small holes under eaves or in fascias and soffits or by building or buying bespoke swift nest boxes.

Just a quick note for those not sure whether they might like “dirty birds” nesting on or in their house and spraying droppings everywhere.... swifts (unlike swallows and martins for example) are very clean nesters. Droppings are pretty solid, contained inside the nest site and are almost invariably eaten by the adults.



Now I’m lucky in that I have had swifts nesting in natural nest sites in pre-war houses that I’ve lived in. I’ve managed to even stream video-clips of our nesting swifts onto the web, before my wife and I moved to a post-war (1953 to be exact) town two years ago. Swifts have not nested in any great numbers in our current home-town so it’s a challenge to get them to investigate the houses here to nest.


For the past two years (including the wash-out summer of 2012) I have ensured there are places for swifts to nest under our eaves, designed and built my own internal swift palace in the attic of our house – I had to drill through the attic wall to provide an entrance/exit for the swifts (with my wife’s permission of course) and put-up a great cedar-wood swift box given to me by the self-same long-suffering wife for Christmas.

I have also (and this is the important bit) “called in” the swifts that fly over by playing a looped CD of swift calls from the roof – without this the swifts would not even investigate this particular part of our home town.



During the summers of 2012 and 2013 we have had up to four swifts check out our eaves and boxes on a daily basis, because of the swift call recordings I’m sure. Mainly around dawn and dusk (when most prospecting is carried out) but also throughout the day.

With areas of post-war towns that have never had any significant swift-nesting activity it might well take a few years (maybe five or so) before swifts choose to nest with you  -  it’s a good test of patience – as these birds, although magnificent to watch, are not the cleverest it seems!

That said, I am hopeful that the best birds of all will nest with us again next year, but to really do ALL that I can for them, I needed one (or two) more boxes right at the gable end of our 1953-built house.  Now I could probably design and build one, but upon investigation at timber merchants and DIY stores, any such design would prove very problematic and pretty costly - in terms of time and money.


Then I happened across the habi-sabi (from “51% studios”) double berth “rapidly-deployable” swift box, made from recycled material, on the nhbs website (which you can also view (if not buy) on the swift conservation website HERE).

I thought it looked pretty good – and pretty simple to assemble. It also looked very user-friendly – I could position the swift entrance holes up against the wall or out on the other side of the habi-sabi box – this looked like a very good feature indeed – and unique to the habi-sabi box. No other swift box that one can buy incorporates this incredibly useful feature.

So I bought one and it arrived yesterday.

Of course, the swifts have all disappeared back to the Congo for the winter now, but I will make some adjustments to the habi-sabi box and put it up in place during the winter – ready for the swifts’ return in late April or early May next year.


The below is a detailed review of the habi-sabi swift box (the above was a long introduction to demonstrate why I bought the box and what my experience of breeding swifts is.


First thoughts on the habi-sabi swift box:

  • It’s extremely quick & easy to assemble (took me 5 minutes – the enclosed instruction booklet is for once, a joy, (apart from one misprint whereby the ceiling flat-pack piece of the box is labelled the floor and vice-versa)). The swift box itself is a quite beautifully-simple design to be honest – it needs no tools other than your hands to build it (and a drill to fix it to a wall) and when built, looks great.


  • It’s allegedly weather-proof (absolutely imperative), has a low mass (so you don’t need huge great bolts to fix it to an external wall), solid (it won’t fall apart) and has excellent thermal properties (better than many types of timber or ply of course) – so any nestlings won’t tend to fry in hot summers.


  • You can customise it as you (or the swifts) see fit. This is a very useful design feature (as described above). When prospecting, swifts will often cling to external walls – this is the only swift box on the market right now that allows you to place the entrance holes of the box right up-against the wall – right next to prospecting “screamers” and “bangers” (swifts). Of course if your friendly-neighbourhood swifts prospect without clinging to walls – then you can also provide entrance holes away from the wall. I can’t say enough about this – when attracting prospecting swifts to a new location, this design feature is unique right now in the UK... and immensely useful.


  • You can paint it to extend its (long) shelf-life, have it blend in with the brickwork of external design of your house, or better-attract swifts. As I am not putting my box under existing soffits at the front or back of the house, but instead putting it up on at the apex of the brickwork gable end - I will cover mine (for example) in brick effect sticky-back-plastic but paint the bottom white, to resemble a white soffit. Swifts like something to aim at, but not something that just looks like a wooden box bolted onto brick work.


  • It provides plenty of room for two pairs of breeding swifts to nest. This might not be important at the start of the swift-attracting process, but if you are successful in getting breeding swifts in one of the boxes - because swifts prefer to breed in groups, prefer to breed where (or at least very close to the place that) they’ve been raised themselves and are extremely territorial about scarce nesting spots – you will need another “berth” soon. This double-berth box at least eliminates that issue. (It’s well known that if you put up one swift box, you probably should put up two to try to avoid nasty territorial battles in years to come).


  • Tiny IR cameras (sold all over the internet) can easily be attached to the internal walls of the habi-sabi swift box, if like me you have experience of and are keen to film any breeding swifts.


  • The box itself can be easily fixed to the wall in one of two ways – with an enclosed two-piece baton (half of which is meant to be attached to the flat-pack swift box already – NB. This isn’t the case, but is no big deal), or by two long screws in ready-made wee brackets at the edges of the swift-box.


  • Unlike other swift boxes available on the internet, the box cannot be “opened up” in situ. Once the box is up, the box is up. This would only prove problematic for two groups of people I suspect. Bird ringers who wish to ring the nestlings just before they fledge or web broadcasters/film-makers (like myself) who haven’t securely fixed any wee camera in place before the swifts arrive and the camera’s position alters over the course of the season. The advice there of course would be to be absolutely sure any cameras are rock solid before any birds arrive (and out of the way of the swifts which will enter the box at speed eventually).


  • The box could do with the addition of two milled “ nest forms" glued onto the (internal) floor of the box. Or even two rings of thick cord/rope to provide the swifts a base on which to start gluing their sticky saliva and feather nests together. It’s well known that these milled wooden nest forms (available from John Stimpson HERE) might make the difference between swifts nesting quickly.... or not. I will buy two cheap nest forms from the internet as a separate exercise to maximise my chances of a swift uptake of this box.


  • The instruction book advice on locating the box is highly commendable. Many people might like to site their new habi-sabi boxes under their soffits – and in an awful lot of cases this would mean the entrance/exit holes of the box are less than 5m from the ground. Swifts need a clear flight-path to their box, which should not be facing the prevailing weather and should be at least 5m above the ground. You really don’t want to see a young fledgling swift make its leap of faith at the end of July / early August, only to crash into the ground (and die invariably) as a result of you putting the box about 4m above the ground. Fledgling swifts need that 5m to find their maiden wings – and the habi-sabi instruction book reminds you of that important fact.


  • It is not particularly cheap – you could probably make one for less – but as far as value for money is concerned, looking at all the pro’s above – I think it’s certainly worth a little more than your more normal., standard, wooden swift boxes on the market right now. It’s a very clever design which probably would have taken me all winter (if not a lot longer) to come up with myself.



Summary of review.

As far as solid, light, weather-resistant, green (made from recycled material), easy-to-assemble, double berth, customisable swift boxes go.... this is the only one on the market (that I know of, at time of writing).

‘51% studios’ doesn’t seem to throw a lot of money at advertising ‘habi-sabi’ products it seems, but I’m very glad I chanced upon this swift box.


The proof will be in the pudding of course – will the dashing swifts use it in years to come?  I really don’t see why not but that’s for the future I guess.

Right now...

 I would thoroughly recommend the (51% studios-made) “habi-sabi swift box” without any hesitation at all.


Purchase yours from nhbs HERE.












Doug Mackenzie Dodds - Images
Edited review.
Not that impressed any more with this design...

Why wouldn’t I buy a habi-sabi swift box again?
A fair few number of reasons….

1 – I was extremely careful putting the box(es) together, but the material they use to form all surfaces of the box is too brittle and too weak. I broke the first roof without even trying.
2 – The boxes even when properly assembled with extreme care and caution are not waterproof. This is a design fault – pure and simple. I won’t bore you with the details here, but take it from me that if you get a heavy rain storm, the design of the boxes is such that rain runs down into a hole in the roof (there are 6 to fit the roof to the box), pools and eventually runs into the inside of the box. I have got around this by sealing all roof holes with acrylic sealant – though waterproof mastic and roofing felt would have done the same trick I expect.
3 – The boxes are FAR too expensive for what they are – basically just four pieces of recycled material which you assemble yourself. £100? Come off it.
4 – The fixing baton (for box to wall mounting) is poorly-designed and not reliable. Again I have solved this by screwing two metal plates onto the baton which slip into the corresponding baton on the wall. If you require details or help on any of these points above, please email me.
5 – 51% (own habi-sabi) maintain that the boxes are easy to paint and easy to clean (just whip the roof off). Let me be clear – I painted the first box unassembled. I had to really. Big mistake. Then assembly becomes impossible. My advice is to assemble and then paint, even if that isn’t ideal (it wasn’t for my set up). As for whipping the roof off quickly – if you do that, you a) never had a waterproof roof anyway (see point 2 above) and b) you will split the roof like I did.
You MUST waterproof the roof somehow (I used a mixture of German mastic and acrylic sealant) and then the roof is fixed ON.
6 – The base is badly designed also. You allegedly can switch the base around to have the entrance holes either by the wall or away from the wall. This can be done in the same manner as “whipping the roof off”. You’re getting the picture now aren’t you? Whipping the base off to switch the entrance hole position will mean a) you haven’t got a waterproof or white-painted base (both unattractive to swifts) and b) you’ll split the base, just like you did the roof.
7 – Replacement roofs or bases cannot be ordered on their own. No. You will need to buy a whole new expensive £100 box. A box that NHBS have now decided to withdraw from their catalogue. I wonder why? I’ll let you know when I find out.
7 – See point two again. 51% are a design company that have branched into bat, bee and swift box manufacture. I hope the bee and bat boxes are more waterproof than the swift boxes they make! Boxes for wildlife that are NOT waterproof are….. yep….. NO use to wildlife at all.
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