On the Wing with Gary Atkins

on the wing
on the wing

IN winter, there’s rarely much to see if you gaze into the skies, but that changes in spring with an influx of those fast-flying, aerial masters that feed on airborne insects that also depend on the warmer weather for the essentials of life.

And swifts, swallows and martins are exciting to watch: their arrival is a sure sign of spring and they as they arrive in fits and starts in late March and April, then seem to fill the skies from May through to September.

They seem to exude a joy and bravado that our earthbound lives don’t always manage to capture. They can inject us with feelings of freedom and happiness ... and certainly I’ve been caught a few times standing alone with a vacant smile on my face, simply wondering at their agility and listening to their high-pitched (dare I say, joyous) calls.

Swifts are perhaps the most remarkable of all. They winter in southern Africa and are only on their breeding grounds for around three months each year. Their presence is often signalled by screams high above the baking streets and buildings of towns and villages, where they nest, often returning to the same nest year after year.

In poorer weather, when the insects themselves stay well below the cloud-base, swifts also lower their sights and give us closer views – sometimes seeming almost to brush us with their scimitar wings as they whistle past our ears at high speed (relatives of the Common Swift have been recorded at up to 100 mph).

If such consummate flying isn’t amazing enough, there are many more remarkable facts about the life of the swift.

Away from the short breeding season, swifts will spend all of their lives on the wing – eating, drinking, mating, bathing and even sleeping in the air. Individuals may fly around 200,000 kilometres each year and, with longer lifespans than most birds – up to 20 years or more – might travel 4-5 million kilometres in their lifetimes.

Unlike swallows and martins, they cannot perch because of very short legs.

The only time they settle on any structure is to build nests (from straw, leaves, feathers and scraps of paper caught on the wind and stuck together with saliva) and feed their young, so if you ever see one on the ground, it will almost certainly be in trouble.

Oh, and are they related to swallows and martins? Well no, not even close.

While common prey means their evolution has converged with their very distant cousins, swifts are a completely different order, in fact most closely related to hummingbirds!