The swallow may be the signal of the season, the red, white and blue ensign of the English summer, with all its bucolic associations of roses and hay meadows, garden fêtes and picnics, but for me the swift’s high cries and the sight of those slender black silhouettes slicing through the sky mark the true arrival of warmer days.
Superficially the same as swallows and martins, swifts in fact belong to a completely different family and – unlike those others – only raise one brood a year. This is because their young must be fully prepared for a life on the wing, and only on the wing, from the moment they leave the nest. Unlike fledgling swallows, agape on the telephone wires, the young swifts know only one element: the air. Their stumpy legs are almost useless for perching, and a grounded swift is incapable of taking off again. Once out of the nest, for the rest of its life, the swift will feed, sleep, mate, solely in the air.
Being so reliant on the upper air makes swifts vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. High winds and heavy rain make gathering food species impossible, and swifts will range far and wide in search of better conditions. Swifts nesting in England are known to hunt as far away as the Netherlands when necessary. The nestlings are adapted to waiting for their next meal: a young swift can survive the loss of half its body weight when bad weather makes it impossible for the parents to make regular feeding visits to the nest.
The swift is often regarded as a bird of the town; the ornithologist Tony Soper wrote of how its screaming cries evoked holiday visits among the dusty old towers of Southern France or Italy, and it is certainly true that swifts like to nest in buildings, swooping in through the ‘arrow slit’ openings in church towers or holes beneath the high gables of houses. But we have swifts in Plaxtol, too. In The Street you may see them at any time of day, their shearing scimitar-blade cries drawing your eyes upwards in marvel. Away from buildings, the best time to spot them may be in the pale sky of early evening, when the insects that have been lofted high by warm air throughout the day sink closer to the fields, and the swifts come closer with them. Then they gather and go scything about like Spitfires in tight formation, engaging an unseen foe.
This parallel with World War Two fighter aces (‘victory rolls, top button undone’) is an apt one. Their screaming swoops about the eaves seem predicated to provoke the sparrows and starlings rooted there. Sparrows can evade a hawk at forty-two miles per hour, and starlings perform beautiful aerobatics en masse, but for sheer aeronautic exuberance, with supreme confidence in their abilities and seeming oblivion to risk, the swifts are unsurpassed.
For the poet Ted Hughes, of course, the annual return of the swifts gave reassurance that the world was working as it should. Sadly, though, their numbers are in decline. The destruction of nest sites through house repairs and property development, and ongoing changes in climate threaten their survival. Specialists require a special world in which to thrive. Only if we can continue to provide it for them will we continue to enjoy the privilege of seeing and hearing these astounding birds, bringing in the summer.
© New Moons For Old, 2015.
Common swifts photographed © Alan Williams, Nature Picture Library, sourced from National Geographic.