Country Matters: The elegant Swift is the epitome of speed in flight

Once when I was crossing a field with no animals, I came across a small, dark bird lying in the grass. I could see that it was alive and moving its head slightly with its wary eyes.

As I bent to pick it up, I thought it was a swallow that for some reason had been sheared off while hunting insects in a landscape where life can be snuffed out by a keen-eyed predator.

The little bird was warm and calm in my hand, its immaculate paintwork untouched by what had thrown it to the ground.

I turned it over and saw tiny legs and claws smaller than I had ever seen on a bird. It couldn’t get up when I put it back on the grass.

I picked him up again and threw him in the air hoping for a launch. It sped away, zigzagging across the field, an exciting result I’ve never forgotten.

This little bird was a Swift (apus apus), migratory birds returning this month from central and southern Africa, traveling some 800 km a day via the jungle, Sahara, Atlas Mountains, Mediterranean Sea and Iberian Peninsula and finally via Biscay to reach the Irish Landing – and insects suck in broad, gaping beaks.

Here, swifts are birds of the urban sky, nesting in old, tall buildings, warehouses, monasteries, and church towers, returning to old sites to hatch two or three chicks in nests made of waste collected and bound with saliva on the fly.

I’ve been fortunate to see swifts whirling in frantic groups over ancient cities like Tarragona, the ancient Roman capital of Spain on the Costa Daurada, darting down ancient streets, gambling and screeching in the twilight. Rocket-like devilbirds, as they are sometimes described, mate and roost while gliding through updrafts on long, pointed wings, using four toes on each feathered foot to brace themselves under a nesting crevice.

The elegant swift is the epitome of speed in flight, with differing wing movements from swallows and swallows – short, rapid flaps followed by long, slow glides with forked tail, stiffened wings sculpted into a cigar body creating an anchor silhouette.

These “city birds” occasionally flee inclement weather inland, nestlings survive by falling into a trance, but parents return to focus on 24-hour feeding to get the young on their wings quickly. Beginning in August, they made the long journey to Africa, all 20,000 pairs, although, as one expert put it, they are elusive.

The main problem for the birds is the removal of old buildings, but in recent years keen bird watchers have started constructing special nesting boxes to attract them.

This isn’t cheap, nor is it hassle-free, as it requires the provision of purpose-built boxes such as Schwegler’s (around €50 each) as well as CDs of dawn and dusk bird calls.

In recent years a number of commercial interests have stepped in to help and last week there was news of a person erecting a series of boxes on his property.

The remarkable bird has also inspired poets. Edward Thomas wrote of swifts “squealing with delight…as if the bow had flown away with the arrow”. And John Heath-Stubbs held that “there is no creature so wholly at home in the upper air.”

He compared the birds to angels rather than devils. Country Matters: The elegant Swift is the epitome of speed in flight

Fry Electronics Team

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