The Urban Countryside – The Swift

by Albert Nolan

Observing birds in your own back yard can often reveal some interesting behavior. I was visiting a friend of mind that has a dog that spends most of its time indoors and in this artificial environment he sheds a lot of hair. Each morning the floor is mopped and the brush is left outside to dry. For the last few weeks a beautiful pair of bluetits have been carefully removing the hairs for their nest. Also when the dryer is finished she hangs the fluff outside and the Jackdaws fight for this to make a warm and dry lining for their eggs.

Next door there is a tall hotel and through the open skylight I heard the excited calls of the swifts. These are summer migrants from Africa and arrive later than swallows. I saw my first one on the fifth of May and by the end of August they will have returned home. These are true city birds and could nearly be renamed “street swifts”.

They have a very distinctive shape when flying (like an old fashioned sickle) with a narrow body and curved wings that are built for speed and endurance. They can reach up to two hundred miles per hour and most of their lives are spent beneath the clouds. I have never seen them perching on the ESB wires like swallows because all of their toes on their feet are pointing forward and this arrangement prevents them from landing. On swallows three toes are pointing forward and one long toe backwards and this allows them to get a good grip.

Swifts are aerial specialists and for the first two years of their lives they rarely touch the ground. I have read reports of people who have watched swifts disappearing high in sky at dusk above their roosting spots and not returning even when it became fully dark. This has lead to the theory that they sleep in the night skies. Mating also takes place mid air and if birds lands on the ground he will find it very difficult to take off.

A few years ago I got a call from a guard in my local station. They had left a window open and a bird had come in and crashed into the wall. It was stunned but appeared to be uninjured. I was asked what they should do. I knew that swifts nested in the building so I suggested leaving the bird in an open box on a high window sill and when it had recovered it would fly away. Sure enough when I checked in the following day it flown to safety.

While swallows might make a summer for me the swift is the sound of holidays. Fearless in flight they chase each other just skimming the tops of the traffic and shrieking loudly all the time. There were once known as devils swallows and screech martin.

Nests are built under the eves in buildings, in old castles and rarely in trees. Then it uses its own saliva to glue the structure together. Only one brood is raised during the breeding season and the chicks are fed on a rich protein diet of insects. These are caught by the adults who like the whales in the seas fly around with mouths open catching flies.

The inside of the mouth is sticky and this traps the insects. Once they have a full crop they return to the nest to feed their brood. Swifts nest in colonies and return to the same site each year.

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