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Return of the Swifts

drawing of some swifts on a wire

They’ve made it again
Which means the globe’s
still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed,
our summer’s
Still all to come.

Ted Hughes: Swifts

by Essie Prosser

If there’s one thing that can transport me straight back to those long summer days of childhood when the sun always shone and your mum used to throw you out of the back door with a sugar sandwich and tell you not to come back until tea time, it’s the whistling screech of the swifts as they swoop and dive seemingly endlessly in the infinite blue sky. And Crich is still blessed with these increasingly rare summer visitors in large numbers. 

The return of swifts to our eaves and roof tops must be treasured as their habitats are diminishing. This superb flier likes to nest in nooks and crannies in old buildings and unfortunately new builds and  the obsession with home renovation means they have increasingly less choice of residence. The swift returns to Crich from sub Saharan Africa in April/May time and accompanies long summer evenings with swooping flight and excited squeals.

Swifts sometimes get a bad press with owners of old houses as they think they make a mess with their nesting habits but this is more likely to be the house  martin, which is not even a near relative. In fact the swift’s nearest relative in the bird world is the humming bird. The swift is dark in colour with a white throat and a forked tail. They are almost never seen on the ground as they never land: eating, sleeping and even mating on the wing.

Swift numbers have halved in the last 20 years so we must be grateful for their yearly visits and protect their nesting sites, as they tend to return to the same place year after year. Studies have shown that the swift may return to the same nest for up to 20 years. Their fledglings are remarkable as they can  reduce themselves to a semi comatose state if their parents are away for a couple of days looking for food (if only human fledglings could do the same!) and will remain airborne for two to three years on leaving the nest until they begin to hatch their own families. 

Historically the swift was called the 'devil’s bird' as they screaming call was said to be that of souls screaming in hell! Also it was thought to have no feet, hence its Latin name Apus Apus which actually means 'footless'. The swift often occurred in heraldic symbolism on the crest of the fourth son, as the fourth son was never going to inherit, hence would never set foot on his own land, and therefore
was represented by a footless bird! In truth the swift does have feet but does have very short legs, so maybe legless might be a better description! It has long been heralded as a weather forecaster flying high when the weather is fine and still and lower during windy cloudy conditions. 

So let’s look forward to lighter, warmer evenings and celebrate when we first hear their banshee calls as a sign that summer has arrived at last.