The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down
July 30, 2020 3:49 PM   Subscribe

 
The swift is an entirely airborne bird. It feeds on moths and bees. It does not nest, and sleeps as it flies. Its feet never touch the ground.

A swift is born in the sky. Unlike other birds, swifts give birth to live young, and as they fall the wind wakes them. They must take wing before they hit the sea or else they will drown.

Even in death the swift remains aloft. Its dead body floats upon the warming air. Around it clouds form, and it is as rain that it is returned to earth.

posted by dng at 3:53 PM on July 30 [7 favorites]


I really enjoyed that. The swifts I know are chimney swifts. I don't know if they stay aloft for so long like the European ones, but it is amazing to see them fly down a chimney at full speed.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 3:55 PM on July 30


This evening, just after I finished dinner, I saw a meeting of birds I've never seen before. There was a large, spread out flock that was so high up I couldn't identify them, and a handful of other groups, along with one or two solitary birds lazily circling. All of them were at just the right height and time to catch the setting sun, so they looked like a whole sky full of glitter.
posted by lucidium at 4:13 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]


Swallows are similar. We have both here in Texas. Arial insectivores that feed and drink on the wing. Rarely on the ground and couldn't perch if they wanted to lacking an opposing claw. Tiny, tiny beaks and a maw of a mouth like a basking shark. Special feathers around the mouth to funnel insects into their hungry bellies. They eat literally tons of bugs. Purple Martin (our largest swallow) houses are quite common in Texas backyards...
posted by jim in austin at 4:23 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


Unlike other birds, swifts give birth to live young, and as they fall the wind wakes them.

Just want to make sure that is read as poetry and not fact. Swifts do build nests.
posted by beagle at 6:01 PM on July 30 [47 favorites]


Just want to make sure that is read as poetry and not fact. Swifts do build nests.
Ah, ok. I did feel like that was just a little bit too astonishing to be learning it just now for the first time.
posted by Horkus at 6:11 PM on July 30 [8 favorites]


All birds land sometime. Swifts and swallows feed on the wing, but they have nests somewhere. Pelagic birds impress me the most. They spend most of their time on the open ocean or above it, and the only time they are on land is when they're raising young.
posted by mollweide at 6:24 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


There are no birds that bear live young. All are hatched from eggs that develop outside the body.
posted by JackFlash at 6:45 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


So, so beautiful.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:14 PM on July 30


There are no birds that bear live young. All are hatched from eggs that develop outside the body.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou wakest me up, and oft are tedious
The balmy days of summer I enjoy
But in the mind, not actuality.

You come to me with similes and stuff
Strange fancies and thoughts metaphorical
I wish to sleep, can't you see it's enough
To use devices plain and not rhetorical?

Just speak your mind: confine yourself to fact
And say things as they are or not at all
Encyclopedic knowledge is enough
To satisfy before the curtains fall.

But since you love them - and I you; I'll shift
To find beauty in the murmur of a swift.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:24 PM on July 30 [15 favorites]


One other astonishing tangent: there is a tribe of swifts called swiftlets, a few of which use echolocation.
posted by kmkrebs at 7:25 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]


Well, since this is clearly an educational thread, you’d be interested to learn that was caused by cross-breeding with dolphins hundreds of generations ago.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 8:16 PM on July 30 [11 favorites]


fundamentally read "swifts" as "swifties" (aka the nickname for Taylor Swift fans) and was like wait this song wasn't on folklore
posted by Kitchen Witch at 8:43 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Well, the swallows here in upstate New York certainly do perch on the railing of my boat just outside next to my berth, and sing, loudly, at 5:30 in the morning. I don't mind. They're good luck for sailors.
posted by valkane at 9:09 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Swallows and Amazons Forever.
posted by valkane at 9:15 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]


This was so beautifully written.
posted by gt2 at 12:26 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


She is writing about the swift (Apus Apus) which is only in Europe and Asia. They aren't in the Americas. Although America has the white-throated swift. Swifts in general are more closely related to hummingbirds than they are to swallows. If you see a swift touching the ground that means it is in trouble.

Here in Amsterdam, many institutional buildings have swift nests built into them. This is true for most schools. This makes this place a swift hot spot. The city tracks all the nest sites. We live next to a school so they have been swooping over our heads all summer. We saw them arrive in late April and they are all leaving right now - I am looking out my window and seeing the last flocks of stragglers.

We have had a bit of swift drama this summer. A couple weeks ago we found some of the Sarphatipark gardeners in distress. This one particular gardener is really more of a botanist, general nature-lover, etc and he told us that workers had just put up scaffolding beside a nearby school, blocking the swifts from getting to their nests. We joined in alerting Nature orgs, the school, the police. The next morning I cycled over there to take a look and saw a police car and two Amsterdam police standing on the sidewalk watching the builders take down the scaffolding. I confirmed by talking to them and asking if they knew about the blocked swift nests. "Yes. That is why we are here." they replied.
posted by vacapinta at 1:00 AM on July 31 [19 favorites]


I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there.
Legendary journeys made on fragile hollow wings.
The night skies rich with whistling each and every spring.
And then there's the day we look for them and can't find them anywhere.

posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:21 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


I live in the upper floors of a 5-story building in Amsterdam, and every night at dusk a flock of swifts comes and plays and screams, zooming around the canyon between our building and two neighboring buildings. We always cheer for them because we think they're eating the mosquitos. I hope they're eating the mosquitos.
posted by antinomia at 3:58 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


vacapinta: "The next morning I cycled over there to take a look and saw a police car and two Amsterdam police standing on the sidewalk watching the builders take down the scaffolding. I confirmed by talking to them and asking if they knew about the blocked swift nests. "Yes. That is why we are here." they replied."

Not all cops are bastards.
posted by chavenet at 4:24 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


Just want to make sure that is read as poetry and not fact. Swifts do build nests.

You know, if they feel like it.
posted by swift at 6:32 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


There are no birds that bear live young. All are hatched from eggs that develop outside the body.

I’ve often wondered why birds are the only animal kingdom where we don’t see live-bearing in some species. I mean surely weight and flight play a part, but bats got that figured out. There a plenty of flightless and flight-limited birds that this could develop in also. So why hasn’t it?

(I mean for heavens sake, there is a frog that gives birth out of its back, and you’re telling me birds can’t figure this shit out?)
posted by [insert clever name here] at 7:13 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


Just want to make sure that is read as poetry and not fact. Swifts do build nests.

Yeah, isn't bird's nest soup made from some of them?
posted by brundlefly at 7:23 AM on July 31


Saw this link first on Hacker News and the top comment there is wonderful.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24002955
posted by I shot a fox in Skyrim and it made me sad at 11:18 AM on July 31 [17 favorites]


the top comment there is wonderful.
Wow, you are not kidding. That's the best thing I've read in forever.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:33 PM on July 31


That was like a Miyazaki film rendered as a HackerNews post. Unexpected.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:59 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


I came to add that Swifts are the closest relatives of hummingbirds but see vacapinta preceded me. Which is only right, meet and fit I suspect as I only found out this fact last light. It is interesting that some put Swifts and hummingbirds in the family Apodiformes while others have proposed the Trochilidae for hummingbirds alone.

Swifts are beautiful in flight, both alone and in flocks of far clouds of drifts turning simultaneously on a dime. I often see them them in the evenings as I water the grass and flowers,, clicking and swooping after insects invisible to me -- Swifts swoop while giant dragonflies quarter the lawn in right angle turns, altogether embroidering the air.

*This phone insists on spelling Swifts with a capital 'S' for reasons unknown to me.
posted by y2karl at 2:26 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]


And, wow, what I shot the fox... and Don Pepino said.
posted by y2karl at 2:30 PM on July 31


Guessing your phone is from Apple. It assumes you are talking about their programming language. That HN story was amazing.
posted by yerfatma at 5:45 AM on August 1


Worth calling out that the essay in the OP is by Helen Macdonald (Twitter), and is part of an upcoming collection of essays also called Vesper Flights. Her previous work includes the utterly sublime (and deeply affecting) H is for Hawk.
posted by parm at 3:53 PM on August 1


Martin Chambers, "A Swift One," (youtube link) from the 1981 compilation Miniatures, "A Sequence Of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces."
posted by user92371 at 8:00 PM on August 1


I am very sleepy and fully bought the live birth plummeting from the sky thing. For a second the world was a little weirder than it already is.
posted by robotmachine at 8:52 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]


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