Thursday 27 October 2016

Feathered angels of the skies

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

If you live in a high old house or have a business in an old warehouse or factory you could consider placing nest-boxes for swifts in the eaves.

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And, as well, at dawn and dusk, playing CDs of swift calls to attract the birds when they begin to arrive earlier in the year is important. Obviously, dedication and enthusiasm are required, and some commercial support is welcome.

This happened in the North where Tesco came up trumps in Crumlin, Co Antrim, a couple of years back by funding a nesting tower of 20 boxes at its headquarters. Local swift enthusiasts were the motivators. Patience and care for birds displaced by demolition of old mill buildings paid off. Local birders also lobbied the bus company, Translink, which also erected boxes at its premises.

In recent times these amazing, beautiful birds have faced serious challenges seeking nest sites on modern buildings in places traditional to them, as well as finding old homes demolished or wired- off to keep out feral pigeons. Many nest places still remain, though, and they still return to old convent and church buildings and port-side warehouses.

The poet John Heath-Stubbs likened swifts to angels as "there is no creature so wholly native to the upper air".

But they have been described also as "devil birds" as they scream through the skies like black missiles with long pointed wings, tiny heads and beady eyes and four pointed toes on each feathery foot to cling to a nesting site. They cannot stand or perch on overhead wires like their cousins, swallows and martins.

As a boy, I found a swift lying in a field, perhaps a lucky survivor of a zooming predator. Having picked it up and discovering its tiny feet and legs tucked underneath I realised it could not stand to rise.

I cast it aloft and away it sped! It was a thrilling experience and I have never forgotten it.

High-flying swifts were visible over Dun Laoghaire's old tree-lined squares framing summer greenery last weekend, where I was asked to blow out the candles on a Stars-and Bars cake, with blueberries and raspberries picking out the colours on the Fourth of July. It was also just past my own birthday, I must add.

The birds have become more visible in the recent wonderful weather at dawn and dusk, speeding over roofs and waterways, soaring to suck up to 10,000 tiny insects a day into their gaping mouths. You may see them where there are old high buildings in Victorian squares, where they have nests in crevices and under eaves. They may be heard communicating in thin, high-pitched screams, mating in the air and even snatching sleep while gliding in thermal updrafts.

The birds begin breeding soon after arrival in May and make a shallow nest of scraps of material picked up on the wing and bonded with saliva. Two or three chicks hatch after 20 days and are fed continuously for about a month. Once they take off they never look back. From August the long return to central and southern Africa begins.

This elegant bird is the epitome of speed in flight with rapid burst of wing.

Nest-box programmes play an important part in helping keep the Irish breeding population of about 20,000 pairs stable.

Sunday Independent

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