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A swift stops in front of a visitor"s camera at the Summer Palace in Beijing, May 20, 2012. [Photo/VCG]

The Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is looking for bird lovers across the city to volunteer for the upcoming annual survey of Beijing swifts.

Volunteers will be trained to administer the survey, learn about the birds" habits, and observe and photograph the birds once a week from March to July this year, according to a news release from the center.

In a recruitment plan posted on social media this month, the center said it needed 80 volunteer surveyors. "The goal of the survey is to find out the swift population numbers, nesting sites and breeding rates, as well as their feeding grounds," said Shi Yang, researcher of the center and leader of the swift survey. "The more we know, the better protection we can offer."

Since 2017, more than 150 volunteers have participated in the bird survey, discovering 25 nesting sites in urban Beijing.

"Apart from the widely distributed sites, we find that the swifts are usually active in the evening, but we are understaffed, so we need volunteers to help with data collection," Shi said.

The bird was first described by a British naturalist in 1870 as a subspecies of the common swift, and was named the Beijing swift. Ornithologists see swifts as "supreme aerialists" with very narrow long wings, ranking them among the fastest animals on the planet, and spending most of their lives in the air.

As swifts seldom land on the ground and they are so fast and aerial, they are very hard to study. "We know very little about the bird," Shi said.

However, the swift has long had a close relationship with people. Ornithologists say people in ancient times would forecast the weather based on their behavior. For example, low flying swifts would mean a storm was coming.

"The swifts have a special place in the hearts of Beijingers," said Fu Jianping, former president of the China Birdwatching Society.

She remembered a scene 20 years ago when hundreds of Beijing swifts hovered over the Qianmen Gate Tower near Tiananmen Square.

The birds like to nest in high buildings with eaves such as city gatehouses and imperial buildings. They can be seen in the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple and the Summer Palace from mid-April to July every year. "Their twittering flight at dusk around many of our major landmarks is one of the most enchanting features of our summers," Fu said.

In recent years, many important discoveries about the swifts have been made due to public engagement.

The migration of the swifts was first revealed in 2016 after a group of Chinese and foreign scientists worked with bird watchers and environmental NGOs on a yearlong study. They fitted tracking devices onto dozens of swifts, and discovered that the swifts traveled more than 13,000 kilometers in winter to southern Africa before returning to breed in Beijing in spring and summer.

Last year, surveys conducted by volunteers showed that there were at least 4,000 swifts before the breeding season in mid-June, and 6,500 after the breeding season in late June in Beijing.

In addition, they found that more swifts nest in modern buildings such as flyovers with no particular preference for ancient architecture, indicating that the swifts are gradually adapting to urbanization.

The bird surveys have raised public awareness on protection of wildlife. According to Shi, most volunteer surveyors are teenagers and their parents.

Zhang Zhecai, 44, has volunteered for the survey with his son since 2017. He loves watching birds, and finds the surveys a good science education activity to learn about a local species and the environmental changes of a city.

"The surveys have also fostered my boy"s scientific spirit, which is very meaningful," Zhang said.