The Swift

Lovely piece about The Swift in the LRB:

“Weighing less than a hen’s egg, with wings like a scythe and a tail like a fork, they eat and sleep on the wing. They gather nesting material only from what’s in the air, which means that there have been accounts of still-flapping butterflies wedged in among the leaves and twigs. They mate in brief mid-sky collisions, the only birds in the world to do so, and to wash they hunt down clouds and fly through gentle rain, slowly, wings outstretched.

I remember, at university, mobs of Swifts lapping the central courtyard of the halls of residence. The screeching and screaming echoed on those warm spring evenings distracting me from my revision.

We’ve seen them every year high above our back garden until recently. They always seemed a sort of confirmation – of the natural order of things I suppose – of spring and summer, of distances safely travelled, of continuity.

I don’t remember seeing any last year; this spring only two birds circled and didn’t screech. But, as the piece notes, populations dropped by 57% between 1995 and 2016 apparently – so I guess we should be grateful that two have been spared, for another year at least.

The terrible emptying of our world of any creature other than ourselves makes a lament for the loss of just one species seem almost superficial. But Swifts are such marvels! Their arrangements for sleeping, for example:

Most remarkable of all is their night. Swifts can find a state of unihemispheric sleep; they shut off one half of their brain at a time, while the other remains functioning, alert to changes in the wind, so that the bird wakes in exactly the same place where it fell asleep; or, if migrating, on the precise course it set itself. The left side closes first, then the right, so that it sways a little in the air as it sleeps. Chaucer knew it long before we did: in the Canterbury Tales he wrote about small birds who ‘slepen al the nyght with open ye’. And a French pilot during the First World War, flying by the light of a full moon on a reconnaissance mission near Vosges, saw a ghostly cloud of them, apparently hovering entirely still in the air: ‘As we came to about ten thousand feet … we suddenly found ourselves among a strange flight of birds which seemed to be motionless, or at least showed no noticeable reaction. They were widely scattered and only a few yards below the aircraft, showing up against a white sea of cloud underneath. None was visible above us. We were soon in the middle of the flock.’ Nobody believed him, at the time: it seemed impossible, because swifts do seem impossible.

Worth reading in full (it’s not very long) and it’s a wonderful homage to this marvellous bird:

The Swift