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Swift (as in the bird)

On July 29, 2020, a story appeared in the New York Times (NYT) entitled “The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down”, written by Helen Macdonald.

Ms. Macdonald is a naturalist, historian, Research Scholar at Cambridge University, writer, illustrator and narrator of BBC radio documentaries and contributing writer for the NYT Sunday Magazine (in which a version of the same story appeared on Aug. 2, 2020). Here’s a link to it.

Ms. Macdonald is most famous (at least in the world of literature) as the author of the (triple) award-winning memoir H is for Hawk (published 2015). This article is adapted from her recently published collection of essays, “Vesper Flights” (Grove Press). I have taken the liberty of quoting a few excerpts from the article:

“Swifts are magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding. Once they were called the “Devil’s bird,” perhaps because those screaming flocks of black crosses around churches seemed pulled from darkness, not light. But to me, they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible, which makes them more akin to angels. Unlike all other birds I knew as a child, they never descended to the ground.”

“They were so fast that it was impossible to focus on their facial expressions or watch them preen through binoculars.”

“There was no way to tell one bird from another, nor to watch them do anything other than move from place to place, although sometimes, if the swifts were flying low over rooftops, I’d see one open its mouth, and that was truly uncanny, because the gape was huge, turning the bird into something uncomfortably like a miniature basking shark.”

“Swifts nest in obscure places, in dark and cramped spaces: hollows beneath roof tiles, behind the intakes for ventilation shafts, in the towers of churches. To reach them, they fly straight at the entrance holes and enter seemingly at full tilt.”

I knew none of these wonderful details before I’d added a new character to The Ravenstones series, in Book 5, Death and Life. But somehow, I instinctively sensed these things about – or had such an impression of the birds that I knew they had to play the role I gave them – mysterious and unknowable outlaws (at least in the beginning). I don’t want to go into much detail because I hate spoiling a surprise, but the role of the lead member of the gang (and unnamed for the longest of times) becomes one of the keys to the conclusion of the series.

As swifts are very small birds (about 1 1/2 ounces in weight and 3.5 to 10 inches long), I took some liberties with the sizing. In fact, I did that with all the animals in the story so that they could communicate with each other more easily. Of course, I figure that any reader who’s already bought into the notion of talking animals won’t have a problem with such things.

According to one of my key reference books, The World of Birds (Jonathan Elphick), the Order Apodiformes contains three families: swifts, treeswifts and hummingbirds, with a total of 430 species (95 of swifts, 4 of treeswifts and 331 of hummingbirds) all told. They range all over the world except the far north and south. Most are highly gregarious, some breeding as isolated pairs or forming colonies; and most are monogamous. I didn’t specify which species in the book; I prefer to leave that up to the reader’s imagination.

The family name, Apodidae, comes the Greek word ápous, which means “footless” or “without feet”, because it was thought that the ever-flying birds had no feet and lived their entire lives in the air. They do, in fact spend a great deal of their waking hours aloft, eating, drinking, gathering nesting material, sometimes mating and even sleeping in the air.

All three families share “supreme aerial prowess, the result of a unique wing structure” – long narrow wings and a stout arm bone that anchors the large flight muscles and extremely long primary feathers that make up most of the wingspan. They also have very small legs and tiny feet, which makes perching a challenge (they tend to hang onto cliffs and other vertical surfaces). In sum, aerodynamic an acrobatic, with unrivalled manoeuvrability. The very fastest swift, the white-throated needletail, has been clocked at 105 mph; the common swift at 70 mph.