Country diary: there’s no other bird like the swift

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Other birds are great. Of course they are. From goldcrest to eagle, they all have their allure. But they’re not swifts.

Swifts are magical. It’s their otherness, the impression they give of coming to us through a portal from an alien world – a world in which the air is the natural medium, the ground to be abhorred. Why walk when you can fly, and especially if you can fly like a swift?

The year’s first appeared one evening in early May, during a filthy hailstorm – the antithesis of swift weather. Some instinct made me look up, and there it was, darting around, dodging hailstones. Within seconds it was gone, back through its portal. We didn’t see another one for a week, but then the weather changed and there they were – eight, 10, 15 and more – wriggling around high in the sky like excitable parentheses.

We are blessed in our corner of south London. They nest in the eaves of the house to our left; they nest in the eaves of the house to our right; they nest – and this sometimes feels like a deliberate snub – in the eaves of two more houses down the road. We could take umbrage at the rejection of our bijou swift box, erected a few years ago in an effort to keep up with the neighbours. But we get the benefit: the kind of aerobatic displays that would set you back GBP50 in London’s West End.

And over the course of their three-month stay, they illuminate our lives on a daily basis. Some mornings they scream past my office window in tight formation, writhing in and out of each other’s slipstreams, squealing with the thrill of it all. Dart, swoop, sweep, glide; round, up, whiz, gone.

The speed is one thing – when they fly low you can hear the whoosh of displaced air – but it’s the manoeuvrability that has me gawping. To earthbound humans, flight is freedom, and the swifts’ flight is its embodiment.

Relish them now. Because soon, one day in late July maybe, they’ll slip back through that portal and head south, leaving a sickle-shaped hole in our lives for nine long months. While they’re gone I’ll content myself with watching the other birds. Other birds are great. But they’re not swifts.

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