Short and Swift

Ok ok, so the usual saying is ‘short and sweet’, but for the sake of this article, I have given the normal saying a bit of a tweak, perhaps not for the better, but a tweak all the same. But why?! Why would I do that?! Well, I chose this title because for me, there is one occurrence during the summer months that really is far too short and far too swift. For the summer is a time when our sometimes blue, sometimes grey and sometimes purple skies play host to a visitor. A visitor who has travelled far and wide, over land and sea. A visitor who has travelled all the way from sub-saharan Africa. A visitor, who on their arrival, zips across the skies, zooming and zig zagging around buildings with overwhelming blink and you miss it type speed, as they race each other, screaming as they go. I am of course referring to the swift.

But the swift is not just one bird, nor one species. The swift family, Apodidae, has over 100 species and this includes many wonderful specimens such as the alpine swift of southern Europe and the Himalayas, the Cape Verde swift of yes, you guessed it, Cape Verde, the African black swift of Africa and perhaps one of my most favourite named swifts, the Fernando Po swift of Cameron, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. So, yes, swifts come in all forms and can be found across a range of countries and habitats. However, if here in the UK you mentioned the swift, and I reeled through all the many types that you could be referring to, you would probably hit me for trying to show off, because in the UK, we are so obviously blessed with one swift. The common swift, or, Apus apus. 

Flashback to university and there I was, standing in a sunny field during a Bird ID module. Watching the swifts and swallows with a fellow birder Josh, we stood silently, watching and trying our damnedest to photograph them. Cue a few choice words from me every so often, when those fabulous swifts were just too quick for me. At that moment, my friend, brilliant with butterflies, but not so hot on birds, rocked up next to me.

‘So! Me and Jack were looking at the swallows and-

‘And Swifts.’ Said Josh said not taking his eyes from his camera lens.

She looked a little confused for a moment and stared at the sky above her, watching the moving silhouettes that all looked so similar. Now it was her turn for choice words as she complained that they all looked the same! How were you supposed to tell the difference? Now, at this moment Josh and I could have laughed, grabbed onto each other for support as our knees buckled under a comment that some birders would either  find hilarious, or the worst kind of bird ID blasphemy. To the untrained or dare I say it, the uninterested eye, swallows, house martins, sand martins and swifts may all blend into one and they often do, especially in the sky. So, I told my friend that when it came to the swallow, look for the white belly, the red throat and almost blueish head, and the elongated forked tail. For the swift, look for the much longer narrow wings, the shorter tail, the anchor shaped silhouette and the dark brown body.

Ok, so we know that the swift and swallow are different. But what is so special about the swift? Or rather, what do I find so fascinating about this species? To be honest, I don’t really know, it’s so hard to pinpoint a specific trait. But when it comes to birds, I love a bit of culture and history, and when it comes to the swift, they are definitely not lacking in it. Their latin name, Apus apus, has a very specific meaning, (don’t they all?), meaning, quite simply, without feet. That’s right! Swifts have such short legs that they often cling to vertical surfaces and rarely ever land, sleeping on the wing (switching which side of the brain is on snooze!), as landing makes them vulnerable to predation. In fact, the only time they do touch down, is to breed and feed their young at the nest. Indeed, their German name, Mauersegler, literally means ‘wall-clinger’. However, just because swifts do not voluntarily land, it does not mean that they cannot become ‘grounded’. As swifts cannot take off from a flat surface, if they are grounded, they are often doomed to death. If you find a grounded swift and provided it is not injured or starving (thin and sharp breast), you can help! Gently take the swift to a high window, no don’t throw it out, but lay it on your hand and slowly move your hand up and down, letting the bird feel the air. Once the bird is aware of the wind, it should drop from your hand and take off into the skies once again.

In the history of the UK, the swift was something of a mysterious and sometimes terrifying bird. So much so that the swift used to be given the name ‘Devil Bird’, due to their ear-piercing shrieks which echoed around settlements as they flew around church buildings. Never landing, they seemed to refuse to have anything to do with the earth which we humans stood on, looking upon it with distain, so people believed they must be the birds of the devil. True, swifts definitely have something unearthly about them, but certainly not terrifying. My family home is lucky enough to have swifts that nest under the eaves every year. When they approach, they dive ever downwards toward the ground and then suddenly kick upward, pulling themselves so gracefully into the small opening of our house, their timing and precision never faltering. For a few moments they disappear and then they hurl themselves out again, flying up into the sky, screaming erratically as they go.

So, how are our common swifts doing? Should we be concerned for our shrieking devils? Well, in Europe, there is thought to be around 20-51 million individual swifts, forming around 49% of the world’s population. Their current population trend is classed as stable, so, for these reasons, they are a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Phew! Arriving in the skies of the UK between April and May, our swifts will sadly leave us again at the end of the summer around September time and travel back to Africa. But why must they leave us? What did we do wrong!! Well, whilst we bundle up, ready for the cold spot, we lose something that is rather important to our swifts. Our airborne insects. And so, they move back to the warmer climates of Africa (and who could blame them), where these small insects are in abundance.

So, the magnificent masters of the skies are with us for a few months. For me, they herald the beginning and the end of summer. There is nothing better on blue skied, warm summer days than watching the swifts zoom around my village. Just like winter wouldn’t be winter without a robin, summer wouldn’t be summer, without a swift.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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