Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com rockpool in the kitchen: swift(s)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


There's one thing Granny particularly misses in summer in Lanzarote. No swallows - or hardly any. Worse still; no swifts. It's how she's always measured summer - by their coming in May, their disappearance in August. Arriving In London late one night last week, hearing the unmistakable screaming the following afternoon, she rushed to her high window and looked out and and there they were, a whole flock, dashing, diving, filling her, yet again, with the kind of unbearable adolescent screaming ecstacy that such things fill her with still.

The poets were good at this: Shakespeare called swifts dragons of the night. Edward Thomas said that they looked, flying, as if the bow had gone off with the arrow. Ted Hughes, lovely primitive Ted Hughes, did best of all:

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossoms. The swifts

Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle -- "Look! They're back! Look!"

"Scream of needle is exactly IT. If there was only ever one reason to return to England in summer that would be it; just to hear/see that.

As a writer, Granny had a go at swifts once, herself. It was for a BBC radio schools' programme, in the days when schools radio producers were serious radio professionals and the programmes went out to everyone, morning and afternoon, instead of being in a ghetto labelled "education." She wasn't the only writer those producers trained to write for radio then. One of the producers was the irreplaceable Philippa Pearce, author of the inimitable 'Tom's Midnight Garden,' briefly Granny's own mentor. No such luck now. They are all teachers first and foremost these days, cramming scripts with hard facts.

It wasn't Philippa Pearce who commissioned Granny's piece on a migrating swift. She was glad to do it just the same, and discovered all kinds of things about the birds she didn't know before, thanks to a long dead ornithologist called David Lack who took out part of the wall in a church tower in Oxford and replaced it with glass; that way he could watch the swifts breeding on the other side of it.

The main thing about swifts is this; they are useless creatures really, it's a wonder, in evolutionary terms they survive. Only able to fly they do everything on the wing, mate, eat, sleep. If by some accident they land on the ground they can't lift themselves off without help. (Granny knows this from experience; she found a swift at her feet once, helpless as a wounded bat. She picked it up and threw it into the air; off it went.) And all they know to eat is insects. If there are no insects because it is raining they fly any distance to get them no matter how far.

The only thing they can't do, airily, is lay their eggs and raise their young. Hence the nests in the eaves of houses, in the church tower modified by ornithologist Lack. He discovered what happens to swift broods if the weather is bad and no insects are to be found locally. The fledglings can go dormant, survive without food for a time. But if like this summer it just keeps on raining, if the parents have to stay away too long, they die. When the parents at last return they lay more eggs on the bodies of their first brood, rear those if the weather improves. In due course, assuming this second brood survives, the young swifts emerge from the nest. They don't get practice in flying like other young birds. They tumble straight out into the air and migrate with their parents, ending in Africa, or wherever it is they winter, if they are lucky.

Dear old Gilbert White, the Hampshire naturalist and parson was the first person to work out that swifts and swallows migrated; before then it was thought they retired to holes in the ground for the winter. But even he, against everything his sense and observation told him, continued to be fond of the old theory, continued to look vainly for swift and swallow burrows. It's like learning there's no father Christmas or that blackbirds were never baked in any pie. Some part of you still wishes that the nursery tales were true. Nice to know the legendary and oh so scientific parson was as human as the rest of us.

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