RECENTLY we spent a week in Italy, staying for a few nights each in three historic cities, Venice, Mantua and Cremona. I emphasise the historic, because the centres of these beautiful places are full of ancient buildings, with new development outside the city walls (or, in the case of Venice, on the mainland shores of the laguna at Mestre and Marghera).
Opening the shutters of our various self-catering or B&B rooms, we were delighted by the squeaks and whistles of swifts, wheeling around in an endless display of aerial tricks and dives. We remembered visiting Siena, lying back on the brickwork of the main piazza, looking up at the whirling, spinning swifts, and joking that we didn’t need the (equestrian) Palio because we had an avian one, without the crowds and the fierce area rivalries.
We live in an small town, in an old house in what is the oldest part of the town, with lots of little walled gardens – and we have swifts. Every year, from late May on, we listen and look out for them. They are more of a harbinger of summer for us than the first swallow or the heady scent of honeysuckle. They swoop and circle around above our garden, with their excited, whistling squeaks. There aren’t as many as there used to be. Once we couldn’t count them – now we are delighted if we see ten or 12. It’s partly the terrifying, dramatic reduction in the number of insects – their food – and it’s partly the loss of spaces to make their nests and raise their young, ready for the daunting return journey to Africa.
Between the “improvements’ and extension to existing houses and the pattern-book identikit new housing developments, there are fewer and fewer roosts for these astonishing migrants, who only come to “land’ in their nests. For the rest of their sometimes surprisingly long lives – up to 21 years! – swifts are flying.
They fly astonishingly fast – at speeds of up to 70mph! And they cover amazing distances – a swift was recorded in Madrid just three days after it had left its nest in the UK.
Swifts arrive from central Africa from early May on and make their nests of straw and saliva in church towers, under the eaves of old buildings and on tall buildings where they can find a suitable roost.
The youngsters stay in the nest for several weeks, depending on the weather conditions. If it gets too cold, they fall into a sleepy state called torpor – a bit like hibernation – during which they don’t feed until conditions improve. Youngsters are independent as soon as they leave the nest, and set out immediately on migration.
Swifts start their return journey in mid July, before the nights become too cool. They don’t roost overnight during the journey, like swallows do. By mid-August, most swifts have reached central Africa. They don’t spend the winter in one place, but travel around according to food supplies and weather conditions. With their remarkable longevity it has been calculated that a swift could fly more than one million kilometres during its lifetime.
Individually, beyond doing our best in our gardens to encourage pollinators and insects, we can’t do much to restore insect numbers, but we can help swifts by giving them somewhere to nest and by encouraging local councils to work with developers to include swift bricks in new homes.
(I am indebted to the RSPB for the descriptions of the swifts’ nests, young and journeys. The RSPB is working with councils, developers, house-builders and other organisations around Britain on schemes to help swifts – visit www.rspb.org.uk to find out more).