My passion for swifts began when I was working with a wildlife rescue group and someone arrived with a small black bird they’d found on their patio As I cradled it in the palm of my hand it didn’t move, just lay there motionless, wings neatly folded, then blinked, once. I was used to nestlings who struggled, fidgeted, twittered, gaped for food. The quiet dignity of this little creature was touching. He seemed to trust me, to understand I wanted to help. He survived, grew bigger, stronger. I knew it was time to release him when he began doing press ups. Then came a strange vibrating, his body curved, ready for take-off. One day, on a hilltop, he lifted lightly from my outstretched hand, soared upwards and in literally seconds was gone.
Amazing. Amazing too to think that he’d stay airborne for the first two or three years of his life, eating, drinking, sleeping, mating on the wing, He’d fly thousands of miles, often so high it would be impossible to see or hear him, at speeds of up to 70 mph, not just back and forth between the UK and Africa, but on little jaunts south when the British weather deteriorated. Eventually he’d start a family of his own, back at the exact spot where his life had begun.
Most of the time swifts have no need of us. They live up above our heads in a parallel universe, slicing across the skies, joining screaming parties to tell us not just that they’ve arrived back but that summer has too. But nowadays swifts are not as welcome as they once were. As natural breeding sites have disappeared they’ve taken to using our properties; their favourite being under the roof tiles of old buildings. A bad decision, this. True, they’re clean, quiet, there for just a few short months. The perfect neighbours, you could say. But in this affluent country renovating old properties is a hobby. And of course gaps are blocked so the inside stays warm and the natural world stays – well, outside. New buildings are equally well sealed. And as their nest sites diminish, swifts have no alternative choices. Their long exhausting dangerous journey will have been pointless. Sometimes they fly back to their winter feeding grounds straight away. Next year there will be fewer of them making the journey. And the next year too. And the next.
And because they are so quiet and unobtrusive, their failure to arrive will probably not even be noticed. Isn’t that a sad thought?