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0 The Miracle of Swifts

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 07-05-2011
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Swifts are back and all is right with the world. I wait eagerly for a first sighting at the end of April and then for the morning when they are suddenly all there wheeling in the sky and dashing about with their excited screeching. As the arrival of the swifts excites me so much I mention their return to people in the local shops. You can tell they think I am mad. They have seen and heard nothing:oblivious. These birds have travelled 14,000 miles from Southern Africa to nest in the rooftops of London, to perform nightly fantastic aerial displays and to inject excitement into any evening. Yet few take the slightest notice of them. I have been in the gardens of houses about here in the evening drinking and talking and the swifts will whizz by with a great shriek: when they are very low you can here the waft of their wings. I will follow them with a quick turn of the head and say: Did you see that? The answer invariably is: Did they see what?

One of the remarkable things about these mysterious birds is that they were coming to London even when I was a boy and the air was thick with coal smoke. Young ones sometimes got caught in the gap between opened sash windows and I remember one occasion when I went with my father to release a bird trapped in this way in a house across the road from us. Swifts do not perch like swallows. They spend nearly their whole life on the wing. They nest under the eves of houses flying in at what appear to be impossible speeds. There is a concern that modern roofs, insulated to save heat, do not provide nest sites.

Tonight I sat out watching the swifts. There is something about them that raises my spirits. Their return each year is a confirmation that despite all the tragedies in the world life goes on. They do not stay long after their young have fledged. For the last few days before they disappear, about the middle of August, they race around the rooftops screaming loudly. Nobody is sure what route they take back to Southern Africa. It is thought they might fly very high: on clear days they do disappear into the blue. 

Nobody knows their history nor can anyone say how these extraordinary birds have come to perform this astonishing migration each year. They are a wonderful mystery, a kind of miracle and each year they make my summer in London.