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Richard Collins: Swifts take advantage of wind beneath their wings
One individual clocked a daily average of 830km over nine days.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fastest of them all? The cheetah, with its 130km/hr sprints, should take the gold at the forthcoming Olympics, while the peregrine, swooping in at 390km/hr, is the avian favourite. But what creature will triumph in the marathon?
Susanne Akesson and Giuseppe Bianco of Lund University are impartial judges of long-distance bird contests. They fitted miniature geo-locators to swifts nesting in Lapland and tracked the migration to Africa and back. Writing in the journal iScience, they reveal that each swift travelled about 570km a day. One individual clocked a daily average of 830km over nine days.
These speeds are substantially higher than had been predicted for swifts. So how did they manage such feats? The answer is that they cheated, though without resorting to performance-enhancing drugs.
“Wind speeds often exceed air speeds generated by powered flight in birds,” the researchers note.
Swifts check which way the wind is blowing and piggyback on air currents.
The geo-locator data also revealed that the swifts flew more directly and faster during their spring migration to Europe than they did on the autumn journey back to Africa. This, the scientists think, is also down to exploitation of tail winds. Air currents, they estimate, provide around 20% more energy to swifts flying northwards in spring than to birds travelling southwards in autumn.
Flying is demanding. Fat, the bird’s fuel, is heavy. Carrying enough of it on long flights is a particular burden. Swifts solve that problem by adopting a fly-and-forage strategy. By refuelling at suitably placed locations, where flying insects are abundant, they avoid having to carry excess baggage.
I remember seeing a spectacular swift and swallow feeding frenzy at an oasis in the Sahara some years ago. A pond there, surrounded by palms and desert vegetation, produced swarms of insects.
Swifts break many cherished avian taboos. Few other birds would even dream of doing the things these ‘devil birds’ get up to. Light and streamlined for an aerial lifestyle, the legs and feet are tiny. What Aristotle called ‘the footless one’ can’t even stand, let alone walk.
Its biological name is ‘apus’; ‘a’ in Greek means ‘no’ and ‘pous’ is ‘foot’. The handful of species worldwide that are able to become torpid to save energy during short-term food shortages includes swifts. Chicks can reduce their metabolism when adverse weather prevents their parents catching the flying insects they need.
The swift’s most radical innovation came to light during the First World War. A French airman cut the engine of his plane to glide silently over enemy lines at night. Drifting quietly, 10,000ft above the ground, he noticed birds “which seemed to be motionless” beside his plane. One, becoming trapped in the aircraft, turned out to be a swift. The pilot had discovered that his avian companions sleep on the wing.
True creatures of the air, swifts don’t just sleep aloft. Flying insects provide all the food they need, partners choose each other in flight, and lovers mate in the air. If only their babies could be produced without needing a nest, swifts would no doubt abandon contact with the ground altogether.
- Susanne Akesson and Giuseppe Bianco. Wind-assisted spring migration in northern swifts. ‘iScience’. 2021.
2019 Nest Boxes Occupied by Swifts!
Pictures from Bagenalstown Tidy Towns’ swift nest box project in Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, using Genesis nestboxes. The nest boxes and call systems were erected on 26th July 2019. 3 nests are now occupied on Queen of the Universe National School and 1 on Saint Brigid’s National School this year, as indicated by Green dots.
Special mention to Paddy Gardiner who got the project off to a “Swift” start!
Wildlife Kildare – latest order
Wildlife Kildare received a consignment of nest boxes in April 2020, ready for the new swift season.
Recent Belgian Export Order
Belgium recently purchased 40 Genesis double entry swift nest boxes for a project they are working on. We are pleased that this swift group chose to place their order with us!
The Genesis Nest Box stand is at the Futurebuild Exhibition in London
Stephan and Dick Newell with another member of Action for Swifts are manning a stand for Genesis Nest Boxes at the Futurebuild Exhibition at the Excel in London. The stand looks great!
New Anti-Predator Swift Nest Box
The new Genesis anti-predator, sloped-roof, triple entry, external fit swift nest box.
New Genesis Swift Tower
The very first Genesis Swift tower is up in Macroom, County Cork, it has 28 nests and a solar calling system on a 6m hinged pole.
Custom Built, 8 entry swift nest box installed at Killarney House in the National Park
Shown below is a 2.4 metre all in one box fitted to Killarney House in the National Park. It has 8 entrances and 2 speakers on the new speaker bracket on the sides. We are now able to produce Genesis swift nest boxes to customer specifications!
New Router at Genesis Nest Boxes
We have purchased a new CNC Router to make satisfying multiple orders easier – we look forward to it being very busy!
Genesis Swift Boxes have a new UK outlet!
Genesis Swift Boxes can now be purchased by our UK visitors at Wildcare Nationwide Ecology Supplies.
Action for Swifts – Swift Awareness Week 22nd – 30th June 2019
Birdwatch Ireland – Westmeath Branch
This summer members of the Westmeath branch volunteered with BirdWatch Ireland’s Westmeath Swift Survey. The survey was carried out with the support of the Heritage office of Westmeath County Council. Volunteers were from various Tidy Towns groups across the county.
Following on from that survey, the Westmeath branch is sponsoring three swift nest boxes and lure systems. These are in Moate, Rochfortbridge and Kinnegad to provide additional nesting sites for swifts in these localities. The members of the Westmeath branch presented the nest box systems to representatives from Moate and Rochfortbridge Tidy Towns committee. Moate and Rochfortbridge Tidy Towns groups also helped out with the nest surveys this summer.
A third system will be presented in Kinnegad in the coming weeks. The nest boxes are funded by donations made by members of the Westmeath branch of BirdWatch Ireland.
The donations are given at our monthly meetings. Our next meeting is October 11th, 8pm Bloomfield House Hotel. Our guest speaker will be Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust, further details will be posted here next week. All of our events are free and open to all. Nest boxes and swift call sound systems are supplied by Genesis Nest Boxes.