Notes for the Season
In Praise of… the Swift (or is it a Swallow?)
A thin high-pitched Tsweeeeeeee cuts the air high above the streets, glancing up I catch glimpse of an elegant bird as it swerves, swoops, shimmies and dips. I recognise the silhouette. But is it a swift or swallow?
Who cares? When just for a moment they take us out of ourselves and up into a world we can only try to imagine and are only now just beginning to understand.
More important than this naming of things – taxonomy, an urge which is simultaneously dull, irresistible and necessary – is the seeing; the moment of our attention, however fleeting, when we comprehend that there is something not of our world but that of extraordinary other.
These graceful sky-skaters of our city summer evenings are our swifts. You might glimpse a white-bellied swallow passing through, or even be lucky enough to have chattering house martins but swifts are the cool, city dwellers; swallows are their long-tailed, white chested, country cousins.
And there’s that scream or is it a squeal? Tsweeeeeeee… Our most intrepid summer city visitor, loudly self-declaring as a swift with just a plain, dark brown colouring, black against the sky. Curiously, their tiny legs are something of an evolutionary afterthought: too small for perching, only just about grippy enough to cling to the side of a building or cliff when nesting.
So what do they do if they can barely land?
Here’s the thing about swifts: They live their lives almost entirely airborne, spending up to two years in the air without landing. They eat, sleep and breed aloft, travelling thousands of miles between our capital and southern Africa, crossing cities, villages, mountains, deserts, seas and jungle on routes which are only now being slowly discovered. So, having spent a brief time in their nest in the UK, once breeding is over they are back up, in the air, where they will stay.
We can allow ourselves a little pang of completely undeserved pride when we see ‘our swifts’…
The mystery of swift navigation
Every London neighbourhood has its local swift community. So we can allow ourselves a little pang of completely undeserved pride when we see ‘our swifts’. Once a community is established the birds will complete the huge migration only to return to the locality where they were born. Your swifts, and mine, have one of the longest return migration journeys on the planet – 14,000 miles (22,000k).
How far is that then? It’s 4500 miles from London to Rome (as the crow flies, though they never do) – imagine flying that three times and then some. That’s how far our swifts travel just to reappear above our streets.
They do this journey for the first time without any ‘knowledge-bank of mum and dad’ to draw on. By the time the new birds migrate in early autumn the parents have long gone, so the newbies have to work out the best route to southern Africa by instinct and some, as yet unknown, systems of navigation.
There is evidence that they use a combination of star navigation, sun position, magnetic fields and perhaps even smell. Scientists have now begun positing the idea of migrating birds using some form of quantum mechanics. Don’t ask me which form, I have no idea what quantum mechanics are other than complicated, and to understand the idea you need to be dead brainy in a conceptual, mind blowing way.
Swifts, and many other birds, clearly are.
Next year, round about the end of April/first week of May – whatever else might be going on in these troubled times – look up…
Swifts begin to leave the UK quite early, sometimes in August so they are safely gone before autumn weather is here to trouble them, but their absence, often a sad surprise of aerial silence, is a loss which can set in train the first poignant inklings of the change of season.
So, those jittery birds excitedly lined up on telephone wires ready to fly south, like semiquavers on a musical stave? They’re swallows. Our plucky swifts don’t bother with such lax hanging about; when they go, they go and don’t stop until they arrive thousands of miles later – and not even then.
Listen out… Tsweeeeeee. You might just catch them before they go.
And next year, round about the end of April/the first week of May – whatever else may be going on in these troubled times…
‘Your swifts’ are back.
It’s summer. Raise a glass.