Monday, April 24, 2006


Swifts are probably the coolest birds in the world. I could go on for hours about them. Swifts eat, sleep, breed and feed on the wing. Once youngsters leave their nests they won't land again for two years. Their wings are so long that swifts flap helplessly, stranded like beached fish, should they land on the ground. Their tiny feet look like mouse paws. Their tiny beak hides a gape as huge and scary as a basking shark's, designed to scoop insect plankton from the air for hours and hours at a time. Did you know that young swifts can hibernate during periods of heavy rain? That swifts will fly a thousand miles to avoid a depression and then return when the rain has stopped? Oh, how unbelievably, bewilderingly weird they are.

This house is a college house, one of forty or so in a central Cambridge square. Swifts arrive back from Africa in May. Straightway the sky is a riot of shrill, particulate swift calls. The Doppler effects you hear as screaming swifts hurtle past make you feel you're living in a canyon. A pair nests three doors down in a hole under the eaves of the Butler's house. They fly into a hole smaller than the top of a coffee cup at full speed. Thump.

By the end of the month, Birdle (whose sleeping cage is next to the window) practises his swift impersonations early every morning. I'm not looking forward to that much. It's loud. And (bless) he's not very good. He gets the piercing quality, believe me, and the descending cadence, but he misses the complexity of the call. Swifts live so fast, their calls are incomprehensible to humans, but if you slow them down, you can hear the melody. They're not calls; they're songs. Swifts live so fast that one apiarist, the story goes, enraged by the swifts zooming past his hives, managed somehow to shoot a couple. He wanted to prove they were eating his bees. He was dumbstruck to discover they'd been preferentially snapping up stingless drones, not worker bees, at full speed. That's how fast they live.

To my great joy, I've been offered some experimental swift nestboxes through the agency of Action for Swifts. You know, living in a college house is sometimes simply the best thing in the world. I asked them if I could put up two nestboxes under the eaves. They said they'd send round a builder to do it for me. I love my college.

I want swifts nesting over my bedroom window!

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