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Notes form the Skies - Jun 2020

 

The old saying goes that ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, but for me and many others living in an urban environment, one swift definitely does! I look for their return every year around the end of April, beginning of May, and hearing their shrieking calls as they pass overhead, makes me think that some things, at least, are still right with the world. (See:Ted Hughes, ‘Swifts’. An evocative poem).

 

The Latin name for the swift, Apus Apus comes originally from ancient Greek meaning footless, because In the Classical world they were thought to be swallows without feet. Their legs are indeed very short, but being supremely ariel birds they have no need to walk or hop on the ground. They also have weak feet, although the 4 toes are arranged in such a way that they can cling on to vertical surfaces such as brick walls. But their element is the air and with long scythe like wings, they are masters of it. They slice through the skies reaching speeds of up to 70 mph as they soar, dip and twist as if about some urgent business that just won’t wait. They spend most of their lives on the wing, feeding, sleeping and mating, and land only to nest.

 

They used to nest in the eaves of old houses, under broken tiles and in other cracks and crevices. But since we’ve become more tidy and keen to insulate our properties, a lot of their traditional nest sites have been lost. I remember watching swifts nesting under the gable of the house opposite many years ago and marvelling at how they would suddenly drop out of the nest and very quickly gain height and speed. My husband was brought up in a thatched property in Devon and every year the swifts would return to nest in the thatch. Unfortunately because it was fairly low hanging, the cat got wise to the fact that the swifts trajectory was initially downwards, and would sit patiently waiting to knock them to the ground as they emerged. It’s then that the birds’ very long wings and very short legs are a huge disadvantage, because it’s extremely difficult for them to get airborne again. Thankfully, most were rescued and relaunched!

 

It’s amazing to think that these birds travel such a vast distance, from Central Africa, for such a brief stay with us. They have usually left by the middle of August at the very latest. Our very own Hampshire naturalist, Gilbert White was one of the first people to properly study this “amusive bird”, as he described it. He noticed that the swifts had disappeared by August and weren’t seen again until the following April. He speculated as to whether it was really possible for such small birds to migrate long distances and posited the theory that they might hibernate over winter or as he put it, ”retire to rest for a season”.  But he was the first person to notice and record the fact that swifts mate on the wing. However, he could never have imagined what recent research has shown about their ability to sleep on the wing. They fly to about 10,000’, then shut down half their brain and by continually correcting for wind drift, wake up in exactly the same position in which they fell asleep. How impressive is that!

 

If you feel able to help these truly amazing birds, whose numbers are unfortunately in decline, please consider having nest boxes fitted on your property. The Hampshire Swift Project will supply and fit a box for £30.00.

 

 

 

 

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