It is the essence of the Mediterranean summer evening. You sit on your terrace enjoying the sunset in the insistent warmth, while squadrons of birds scream over the roof-tops. The whitewashed buildings are edged with nests; the tangle of wires between them is neatly pegged with perchers, and every evening they fill the sky: high-altitude cruisers, alley flutterers and daring roof-skimmers.
Why do they come to town? You see them in the countryside, along with the year round crag martins, but sparsely scattered: over villages there are hundreds. It’s us, or course: our litterbins, livestock and slovenly lifestyles attract billions of bugs, swarming over our dwellings and rising like steam from the streets. A nesting pair of swifts can catch 20,000 insects in a day, but it seems there’re still plenty to go round. That’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
These birds, like many ex-pats, are migrants: millions cross the Straits of Gibraltar each Spring and spread all the way up to Scandinavia, usually going to the same place, the same nest as last year. Swifts, Swallows and House-Martins, (or Vencejos, Golondrinas and Aviones común).
House Martins are neat little birds black on top with a white rump and white underneath. These are the ones we see most of in the alleyways: those colonies of overlapping nests under the eves (the oldest whitewashed, the fresh mud-brown) are theirs. Their tenement blocks are build faster than most here, but then they don’t worry about building permits. In cold weather they will pack together for warmth in a neighbourly way but in spring there’s plenty of building site pilfering!
Barn Swallows are bigger and very handsome. They have blue-black head and back, a white underside and a red face. Their forked fan tails feature ‘streamer’ feathers either side for balance. Swallows are stunt flyers, the Red Arrows of the bird world. Angled wings and that fancy tail give them astonishing manoeuvrability. They know it: they are terrible show offs! They revel in high-speed low-level swooping and swerving, as they catch insects or dip drinks from water deposits, pick off bugs from dusty road edges, or loop down narrow-lanes to perch on the power-lines.
It’s mainly Swallows you spot ‘pegging’ the lines; hope they don’t ‘spot’ as you pass underneath. The Spanish say it brings good luck (but that’s just to make the pooped-on feel better!)
I love Swallows. They are so elegant and are both familiar and exotic. They bring an incredible grace so close I can almost touch it. But compared to Swifts, they are ground lovers.
Swifts are the highest flyers, the long-distance travellers, the swiftest of birds. They are more or less all black and you know them instantly from the ‘anchor’ shape given them by a short body and long wings. Swifts are astonishing birds, sky-lovers, barely touching down: they leave the nest for their first flight and don’t come down to earth again for two years. TWO YEARS! I can’t get over it. They eat, sleep and mate on the wing – but sex brings them down to earth: eggs and chicks need a nest. Their bodies are built for their air: they aren’t much bigger than Swallows but their wings are very long, thin and slightly curved. Their little bodies, from blunt head to short tail, are torpedo shaped and streamlined, with tiny beak and feet and deep-set eyes. The combination makes them the fastest birds in level flight: they have been proven to fly at 111.6km/h (69.3mph) and might be capable of faster – not bad for a bird that weighs 40 grams. That is the weight of a Cadbury’s Crème Egg! But I suppose if you have a long way to travel – and those that nest in Scandinavia fly some 6000 miles each way on migration – you want to go at motorway speeds.
It is Swifts who party every evening in summer, making all the noise; they fly low in shrieking parties, yelling (according to Richard Adams) “News! News!”. It’s all about sex (wouldn’t you know it), though whether males are picked for flying ability or noise is anyone’s guess. They’re also the real high flyers: in the heat of the day as you laze by the pool you may see them lazing at high-altitude, some 3000m up, floating without a wing-beat and ‘sieving’ the ‘air-plankton’ tossed up there by turbulence. Incredible birds.
I have held a swift. Their legs are so short that, if grounded, they can’t lift off: an earthed swift won’t survive unless re-launched by a friendly hand. That’s why they nest on high ledges: they can get going by the simple trick of falling off. But young swifts on a maiden flight sometimes fail, so the bird must be captured and swung into the air. It is something to have launched a sky-dweller.
Which is your favourite of our summer birds? Write in the comments box below or, if you like send a photo (low res jpegs only please) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictures will be posted on the What you have seen page.
I found out lots of unexpected details on swifts via a RSPB Amazing Swift Facts pdf: https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Amazing%20swift%20facts_tcm9-279347.pdf
There’s concern that swifts and similar birds are threatened by habitat loss and insecticide use: see the http://www.swift-conservation.org/Swift%20Facts.htm