I always enjoy Harry Eyre’s Slow Lane column in the Weekend FT. Last weekend’s The planet’s still working was no different: a delightful mixture of the practical and the philosophical, and at its heart the swift, or more correctly the European swift (Apus apus), as there are almost 70 different species of swift across the world.
We are like Eyre’s uncle, whom he notes,
Every May . . notes down the first arrival of the swifts on his particular beat in north London. The birds are not quite as regular as the St George’s mushrooms which appear on precisely the same day – April 23 – every English spring, but the birds come some time between the 9th and 13th of the month. I haven’t asked him about this but I assume he finds it comforting, a sign in uncertain times that, as Ted Hughes put it, not entirely reassuringly, “the planet’s still working”.
We see them later in this part of the country, and often the ones we see first are on their way north. In the last 10 years, the earliest we have noted them was 30 April in 2004; and the latest, in 2002, 14 May. For the most part they are with us sometime in the second week in May. The swallow may be the usual harbinger of summer, but for us it is always the swift.
Eyre also quotes the recent RSPB report on the diminishing number of swifts: since the 1990s a 40% drop. Again, we have seen it here. This year there seem only to be four or five resident in Moretonhampstead, whereas in the past we have had far more. Changing building practice is partly (possibly largely) responsible, but this is nothing new. In his 1980 book, Devil Birds, Derek Bromhall wrote,
As old buildings in which swifts have nested for years are demolished, new sites become progressively harder to find. Modern buildings do not allow birds access into roof spaces, and in our present energy-conscious society we seal and insulate the roofs of those older buildings which are being preserved.
Eyre wrote almost the same last week, “Mostly unconsciously, we have been shutting the swifts out of our lives. Now the imperative to insulate our houses and make them airtight, to save on heating and therefore CO2 emissions, has made matters still worse.” He suggests swift bricks are one answer. Bromhall was there first, advocating nest boxes.
And an afterthought; Harry Eyre makes the mistake many people do, referring to swifts as hirundines, and thus lumping them into the same bird family as swallows and martins. They aren’t. Swifts belong to the Apodidae; swallows and martins are Hirundinidae.
And as for poetry, Ted Hughes’ poem, also ‘Swifts’ is every bit as good, “On their switchback wheel of death/They swat past, hard fletched,/Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,/and are gone again. . .”