Thursday, 5 May 2011

Footless or fancy free?

Each year I hear them a while before I see them. At first the hearing is subliminal. Their signature screeching insinuates itself as I am occupied with something else; a conversation perhaps, or a book. But the moment I become conscious of their presence I look up. And there they are, Africa-black boomerangs in silhouette, flicking and diving against an ultramarine sky. The swifts have returned. Earth's orbit has cranked full circle and the final piece of summer's jigsaw is in place. The swifts are back, screaming through eaves and gnat-crammed alleys. I am a year older and all is right with the world.

The last to arrive, the first to leave, we can almost set our watches by them. May Day or the day after, never much later than that, whatever the weather and whichever way the prevailing winds are blowing. We have to make the most of them for they are gone again by mid August. I was once astonished to see a lone straggler in the Edinburgh skies on the first of September.

There are some extraordinary fancies told about swifts, the most celebrated being that they have no feet (their taxonomic name Apus apus lending tautological credence to the myth) and that, if grounded, they are doomed. For a bird so intimately associated with human habitation it is remarkable how little we still understand them. They are aerial aliens in our earthbound towns. There is something delightfully otherworldly about them with 'Their mole-dark labouring, Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy And their whirling blades' as Ted Hughes memorably depicted them.

Once, while touring in Rioja country on one of the hottest days I can ever remember, I came across a solitary swift apparently crash landed in a tree. I had no camera with me and they have never been within range since. However I can testify to it being equipped with a full complement of feet, four toes apiece. But you don't have to believe me.


  1. The swifts are here! And I have seen them on the 1st of May! Initially darting just a fraction out of range of my peripheral vision and then dipping tantalisingly closer until the two of them, I only saw two, performed an acrobatic display of flying mastery. Coming together than parting in an arc too quickly drawn for my eyes to follow.
    As to the feet, there is a very clear image of their lovely toes on for the non-believers. As you say - All is right with the world.

  2. A few years ago while on holiday in Norway, we were taken into an old wooden church that is usually kept locked as it is not in regular use. We heard a scrabbling sound under the pews and some people in the party panicked thinking it was a rodent. It was, in fact, a swift. To the apparent surprise of some of the other visitors, my wife picked it up and took it outside where it catapulted itself from her hands and soared across the fjord.

    What I always look for at this time of year is the arrival of the martens that build their nests in our eaves. They are investigating at the moment and should start building soon.

  3. A nice story, Greg, and one to stay long in the memory, thank you. Seeing a swift up close made me appreciate that they are not truly black at all but drab brown and quite mottled. Apparently they are prone to infestation by a particularly large type of tick, which can make handling them unpleasant. Nevertheless, what a privilege to be able to hold a bird and set it on its way.