Diary of an amateur ornithologist in France: swifts
Swift (black swift) are the ultimate flying bird. They are totally engaged in the sky in a way that is without concession to the spinning planet below them. They eat, sleep and even mate, falling together in flight before separating into recognizable shapes of two birds. I only saw this once.
There are three species of swifts in France, but the one you’ll see is almost certainly the common swift.
I lived on the top floor of a large building overlooking the main square of a small town in the Aude. In May or June, I could hear scratching and beating above my head, from the barely adequate linings of the quick nests among the small spaces that the tiles offer.
No intricate weaving of branches and moss for swifts, the only materials they use are gleaned from the air itself, floating leaves, windblown grasses, drifting spider webs, feathers.
They only descend to grip hard surfaces with their little feet (their Latin name means “ footless ”) for what it is impossible to do in the air – to lay eggs as adults, and thus give birth.
A fast, living a full life, will travel millions of miles. They are not European birds at all, more African as they surf the continent for nine months of the year, often at the forefront or rearguard of a storm.
When the day comes when the young swifts leave their parents’ nest, it’s quite a spectacle.
Howling flocks of several birds circulate at breakneck speed – swifts can fly horizontally at over 111 km / h – attracting the quivering hearts of the chicks to join them in their true element.
Once the chicks leave, if they survive, they will not leave the sky for two or three years, only returning to earth when they are ready to be parents themselves.
Helen Macdonald, author of the 2014 H is for Hawk Award, has just released a sequel; Vesper flights.
Like Helen, I find alien swifts; there is no relationship with them, even when they have fallen to earth and you hold them in your hand.
There is a veil between them and you, they do not see you. They cannot take off, so you have to climb as high as possible, open your hand and wait, hoping that a time will come when they will gather, fall and go, return to the sky.
You need to know when a juvenile swift is ready to fly, so if you find a young swift on the ground, put it in a small, dark box with air holes and take a look at these tips before continuing.
If you become a quick watcher, sitting with a glass of wine in hand as evening falls in the towns and villages of France, you will be surrounded by gangs of swift families bustling around the church spiers. and village streets, like loading BMX cyclists into a race. Then you notice the darkness gathering – it’s not there anymore.
This is called vesper flights. Swifts will climb between 2000 and 3000 meters in the air, to an altitude where they can use the stars above and the ground below to orient themselves, then fall into a state of semi-sleep, drifting with the winds.
It was previously thought that they all went up together and went into REM sleep, with one part of the brain resting while the other half continued to function, only to descend in the morning.
Modern studies have shown that they descend individually at night to feed again, before rising before dawn to form flocks again.
In the high altitude twilight, they judge future weather systems; clouds over horizons, winds and atmospheric pressures, and so orient yourself for the activities of the next day.
They don’t always do things right. I remember a year ago, a sudden cold snap hit in the middle of the fast season. No insect has hatched to provide the aerial plankton they feed on.
After two days, and probably hundreds of miles of flying in search of food, they returned to their birthplace to fall to the ground in the street – I counted 11 bodies over 50 meters. It was tragic to watch.
It is important to know that the rapid numbers have declined by around 50% in France over the past 20 years.
This is in part due to the loss of suitable nesting sites as buildings are renovated, closing holes in walls and roofs. The League for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds give advice on how to mitigate this, and it’s possible to build your own quick box to install under the eaves of your home.
Find here the plans of the RSPB for the construction of a fast box.
The other reasons for the decline are related to the decrease in the supply of flying insects due to modern farming practices and changes linked to climate change, both in Europe and Africa.
Enjoy this amazing bird while they are here, they will be heading south too early. In the same way that they disappear in the evening, towards the end of July there are less each day, then, after a week, not at all: they returned to their sky above Africa.