Friday, 30 April 2010

Welcome home

This morning I looked up - as I tend to at this time of year - and saw exactly what I've been looking for the last couple of weeks. A black anchor-shape carving the air. The swifts are back.

Mrs QO was profoundly grateful to hear the news, which of course I texted to her within the minute. She will know I now have a radically lower chance of a car-crash, since I will no longer be scanning the skies while driving, instead of checking out the joker in front braking too hard.

I've always loved these masters of the sky. The swift is, arguably, more perfectly adapted to its medium than any other creature. From the time it first jumps out of the nest through to the first time it mates and nests two or three years later, it won't touch the ground. In level flight, it's the fastest bird [adopting Jeremy Clarkson voice] in the world, having been clocked at just under 70mph - some sources put their top speed when diving considerably over 100mph - and no other bird spends more of its life on the wing. Swifts live a long time - one ringed specimen was over 20 years old when found killed by an accident, though the average is probably quite a bit lower - and they're strongly territorial, so the ones you will be seeing soon over your skies are probably old friends, even if you haven't said hello before.

If you see one perching on a wire, congratulations - you've seen a swallow or a martin. Different families entirely, despite their similar conformation. Swifts don't do perching.

Swifts arrive in England around the beginning of May and, having raised their young, will return to southern Africa by the end of July. For the fledglings, that's quite an L-plate trip - I've flown the 6,000-odd miles to sub-Saharan Africa and I found it tiring, and I had four large jet engines and some very attractive trolly-dollies helping. OK, they don't have to be searched at Heathrow, or go through Customs at Jo'burg, but you take my point.

We don't have these beautiful and perfect creatures for long, and their numbers are sadly diminishing as modern house-building methods don't suit their nesting requirements as well as the old Victorian designs. So I encourage you to cherish them while they're here, and to think of them as British birds rather than just exotic summer visitors - they may fly hundreds of miles a day, but the ones you see looking up from your garden into those high blue skies of summer were probably born in your postcode. Think of them as neighbours.

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