Thursday, August 13, 2020


Michael - Thursday

Last month I read an essay in the New York Times Magazine about swifts. It’s called The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down and it links to our current difficulties in surprising ways. The author, Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk, writes a very personal piece about these strange birds and it’s definitely worth a read.

The elegant African Palm swift.
Often seen over our bungalow at Olifants
Swifts are birds that spend their lives in the air on the wing. They feed on flying insects, sleep in the air – half the brain at a time – and come down only to build their nests and breed. They don’t perch, they don’t really interact with the ground at all. 

The Alpine swift makes its way from Europe to South Africa with the seasons.
You usually see them here on their own.
They may fly huge distances or just recycle a large area, but they may fly more than 100,000 miles in a lifetime. They may be in flocks or alone.

Barn swallows roosting. Never swifts...
Swifts can be confused with swallows, but they aren’t related. Swifts and swallows are examples of parallel evolution. Apparently, this is the best design if you intend to fish food only from the sky. Actually, they are quite easy to tell apart because swallows flap their wings rapidly and are often seen perching in trees. They love telephone lines and form neatly packed lines. Swifts float above it all, wasting as little energy as possible on wing motion. They can rotate their wings from the base allowing efficient flying at height. This ability is shared only with hummingbirds (which are supposed to be their closest relatives).

Chimney swift swarm
They seem able to test the weather and the winds with intricate flying, rising and falling – so-called vesper flights. Presumably they use this information in their flying and hunting for food. It’s hardly surprising that they migrate large distances. Why not? You’re flying anyway. So they follow their food north and south with the seasons.

Little swift nests in South Africa
As for the world, they stay above it, remote, aloof. Only returning to it to breed.


  1. We have both swifts and swallows in Tuscany, Michael. They fly around my place in Florence—the swallows mostly in the evening. I love to watch them. Anything that eats mosquitoes is MY FRIEND!!

  2. Good point. So you must love the micro-bats. Corona virus ones excepted of course!

  3. When David and I still had the country house, we put up a bat house on the corner of our property nearest the neighbor's pond. David contributed to the Bat Conservation Fund! Bats carry viruses. I know. But I still say: If they eat mosquitoes, they are my allies.

  4. I've bats in my barn. Swifts and swallows are definitely cuddlier. By the way, I found it fascinating how far they travel, but as you said, Michael, if you're going to be flying anyway, why not see new places.