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London’s icons: Swifts

December 20, 2013

This article was originally published in the Lost In London book in 2013, which is available here.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of a bird which so effortlessly manages to be so definitively urban, supremely exotic and perfectly symbolic of the arrival of spring in the city. It’s also hard to imagine a London without them, being such a visible, vocal and evocative part of our street life, and with such a unique story to tell.

After an epic, punishing journey from as far as southern Africa, incorporating sea and desert crossings amongst other daily challenges, Swifts finally return to London in late April and May. As harbingers of the coming season, there’s nothing quite as life-affirming as their eventual arrival, wheeling and screaming playfully overhead, renewing bonds with their partners and bringing life to the greyest of spring evenings.

Superficially similar to Swallows and Martins, Swifts are easily identified by a combination of characteristics, including their overall dark plumage, cigar-shaped bodies, short, forked tails and scythe-shaped wings, the latter feature earning them the appropriate colloquial name of ‘flying horseshoes’. Their flight behaviour is also distinctive – as well as being extremely fast, they’re often in acrobatic, swirling groups, with glides interspersed by a stiff-winged fluttering.

Their latin name translates as ‘without feet’, which isn’t quite as absurd as it may seem – Swifts have proportionately tiny, claw-like feet, of little use on terra firma except as an aid in clinging to vertical surfaces. A strange, almost unique adaptation amongst birds, but more understandable – and not nearly as staggering – when taken in context with their extraordinary aerial lifestyle.

Swifts feed on the wing (from within millimetres of the ground to thousands of metres up in the air), mate on the wing, and even sleep on the wing; indeed, a young Swift leaving its natal home in a London suburb is unlikely to touch down again for another three years, clocking up millions of air miles over the course of its lifetime.

Their stay in London every summer is sadly brief, with most of ‘our’ birds leaving by early August – equating to just a quarter of the year spent gracing the capital’s airspace. Towards the end of their stay, Swifts often become increasingly social, and parties of many hundreds may congregate where feeding is plentiful; the most impressive gatherings often occur over large water bodies, and London’s ample selection of reservoirs provide the ideal place to enjoy the spectacle.

Look up into the blue for long enough on a summer afternoon, and the chances are, you’ll see their rakish, acrobatic forms hawking insects above the blissfully unaware earth-bound crowds; check the skies just after dawn, and you’ll likely find these early risers already cutting swathes across the morning light; look out of your window after the sun has set and it’s Swifts silouhetted against the burnt orange of London’s twilight.

As neighbours, they’re about as good as it gets, being naturally gregarious, pairing for life, and even being good enough to hoover up countless thousands of flying insects on a daily basis. Thus, sharing tiny corners of our dwellings with them seems like a small concession to make. Swifts nest in the crevices and openings under the eaves of our houses and buildings, and are therefore one of the few species which don’t just tolerate the urban environment, but actively seek and relish it; our streets are as welcoming to them as remote lochs are to Scottish Ospreys.

However, their numbers are crashing alarmingly, and while there are various factors involved, Swifts are suffering as a direct result of our collective negligence. London is effectively evicting arguably its most iconic and magical bird, as a result of ‘improvements’ to older houses, and a lack of available nest sites in new-build properties. With foresight and will from developers, local authorities, businesses and individuals, their demise need not be irreversible, and time will tell if London cares enough about its Swifts to write them into its future.

Swifts, are, to me, the quintessential London bird; a bird which relies upon us and yet gives us so much pleasure in return, thrives where we thrive, and travels thousands of miles every spring on a journey fraught with danger, just to reach its home estate in Brixton, Barking or Bermondsey – arguably making for a more committed Londoner than any qualified cockney could even dream of.

Copyright Mark James Pearson 2013



























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