The Surprising Life of Swifts

By José Luis Gallego, environmental communicator @ecogallego

These days we can spot the very first swifts of the year. They are starting to arrive from tropical Africa where they have their wintering grounds. After crossing the Sahara in one go, flocks of these aerodynamic, boomerang-shaped birds will be darting down our streets in just a few weeks, swooping across the skies of our cities and villages with their characteristic call. Their lively presence tells us that spring is almost here.

 

 

A common swift against blue sky, source: SEO/Birdlife

 

The common swift – recently named Bird of the Year by the conservation organization SEO/Birdlife – is an urban bird which is rarely found outside of populated areas. The reason for this is the swift's habit of building nests in the nooks and crannies of buildings. The rest of the time these beautiful elegant birds, with their strong wingbeats and fast flight, can be seen in the air: scouting the avenues from above in search of flying insects to eat, or chasing each other in acrobatic manoeuvres while emitting their strident call.

 

The species is also a frequent guest in the vineyards around rural villages, where the swifts love to display their acrobatic talents, catching winged insects that tend to swarm above the vines at sunset or early in the morning. Observing these agile fliers and their mastery of the air is absolutely extraordinary.     


 

The Mas La Plana vineyard at sunset, a Familia Torres property

 

The swift is among the most aerial birds on the planet. Long narrow wings with perfect plumage make the swift an incredibly skilled flier. Swifts spend 95% of their time in the air without any need to land. They eat, drink, sleep, fall in love, and even copulate in full flight. 

 

The swift only folds its wings and comes to rest for a few days each year, in late April or early May. This is when swifts lay their eggs in plain nests tucked into the cavities of buildings and sit there with the sole purpose of incubating them and feeding their chicks once they hatch. The rest of the time they spend in flight, which is why bird lovers call the swift “the bird of the wind”.

 

 

SIMILAR TO SWALLOWS, BUT DIFFERENT 

Although bird field guides group swifts with swallows, and they are generally associated with them, swifts display certain characteristics that earn them a different genus and classification. 

 

 

The common swallow (photo by Ana Mínguez – @anacagur)

 

In fact, the scientific name of swifts (Apus apus) refers to a peculiar biological trait that makes them unique. They are effectively legless, or rather their legs are so short and weak, they hardly qualify as such. This is why we will never see a swift sitting on a cable or a tree branch. In fact, we will never see a swift quietly perched anywhere.

 

Should we find one on the ground, it doesn't mean the bird is hurt or ill. Most likely it accidentally flew into an air shaft of a building and can't get out (swifts need a lot of space to take flight), or it crashed into a window (its worst enemy). 

 

So if we come across a swift fluttering on the ground, unable to fly away, do not place the bird in a cage with bread and milk. Instead take the bird out to the terrace or balcony and launch it into the air as we would a paper plane, aiming high into the sky. This allows the swift to take flight and return to its place in the world – the air. 

 

Last but not least, please keep in mind that the common swift is a protected species in Spain, as are its nests, chicks, and eggs. The swift is included on the Listado de Especies en Régimen de Protección Especial (a list of species granted special protection), as well as enjoying international protection under the Birds Directive and the Bern Convention. Disturbing or harming these birds in any way may constitute an offence. 

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