One of my lengthier commutes while living in London consumed the better part of an hour and a half each way. Broken into three sections, the middle spent on an overground train, the latter third was a journey on foot encompassing a cow field and Thames towpath. This final leg of the morning trek produced a satisfying contrast with the pedestrian hike at the beginning of the trip; a lengthy hoof between home and station via rows of towering townhouses. While the towpath offered great interest by way of diverse (and ever-changing) wildflowers, birds and butterflies, the city amble was for the most part unsurprisingly uneventful. Each year, however, this monotony of urban passage was dramatically perforated by the sound of an arriving summer migrant.
‘Some old romantic yell sang in me, and probably out loud too, “They’re back! The Swifts are back”’, Richard Mabey wrote excitedly in his 2005 memoir, Nature Cure. His spirited enthusiasm for the bird’s return resonated with me, as it will have done for the many other readers who are tuned to the arrival of a swift in spring. Although similar in form and flight to their distant Hirundinidae cousins the swallows and martins, many will recognise swifts for their pitched (yet surprisingly un-arresting) screech. The reasoning behind this in-flight communication isn’t fully understood; some attribute it to their proximity to nesting sites, others to social exchange. Swift calls are often anthropomorphically considered an expression of the pure joy of flying, remaining in continuous flight longer than any other species of bird (even sleeping on the wing). Whatever the motive, the screeching is a proclamation of arrival, and emphasises the bird’s mysterious silhouette and frantic, wild display.
While the number, and indeed diversification, of residing birdlife in UK cities is nothing to be sniffed at, seasonal migrants are often less conspicuous in built up areas. Therefore the arrival of swifts into an urban setting offers a link to the wider world of profound proportion: a tangible, audible reminder of the underlying mechanisms of the earth (mechanisms often obscured by the pace of a city). Ted Hughes relayed this sentiment perfectly in his poem, Swifts:
‘They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working’
Although the fundamentals of avian migration remain something of a mystery, its continuation is a comfort as we enter an age of meteorological instability. This is perhaps why their shrill cries are so eagerly anticipated and readily celebrated. The globe is still working, although it is also changing. It is a changing world that has led swifts to venture further into cities and away from farmland; the use of pesticides affecting food sources and the destruction of habitat disrupting nesting sites. Cities became increasingly hospitable for these high-story settlers; providing nest spaces below roof eaves and top floor balconies high above the ground. A room with a view is crucial for swifts as they can only take flight from an elevated starting position. In fact, their disproportionally small feet and short legs mean that, if grounded for any reason, becoming airborne again is a near impossibility.
But herein lies the true marvel of the bird’s nature. Its somewhat alien physiology (domed head, stretched wingspan and elongated body) is fitting of its somewhat alien existence. It is well known that the common swift spends almost its entire life in the air, landing only to nest and breed. In some ways they have more in common with migrating salmon than they do with a robin; existing in a medium more like water than land. To this end, grounded swifts often perish if unassisted; like fish out of water, suffocated by the ground.
For someone often unfairly dismissive of urban architecture, I’ve always been attracted to the image of sunlight on city buildings. In contrast with a large tree, whose intricacies are often intensified, early morning light (as well as twilight) has a flattening effect on brick and concrete. It simplifies a building’s appearance however busy in design, fitting it more naturally with the plainness of the sky. When I remember looking up at the incoming swifts racing along the roofs of my May-time commute, I picture them against this light; against these buildings. There may indeed be a proven relationship between the level of sunlight and the pace of the bird’s activity, yet regardless, I remember swifts as silhouettes upon illuminated upper storeys. Their shrieks and screams speeding through streets and darting between buildings display an enjoyment of the city landscape as great as any I’ve witnessed, perhaps greater, even, than our own.
And so it is, once again at the beginning of May, that I find myself looking upwards in anticipation, appreciating a little more the architecture of my city. I await the swift’s return and for the news that, ‘it’s all still working’, their world and ours.
Words by Matt Collins. Illustration by Maria Nilsson.