Why is the swift the most impressive bird of all?

April 29, 2012  •  1 Comment

So why do I consider the common swift to be the best bird of all? Better than kingfishers, ospreys, eagles, peregrines, jays, wagtails, swans, goldeneye, owls... better than them all....?




  • They’re generally the last of our summer visitors to arrive (so when swifts arrive, we know summer is almost upon us – I have always been in love with summer).


  • They’re generally the earliest of our summer visitors to depart (we only get them for three short months each year and we can’t even see them for three quarters of our year – so we need to make the most of May, June and July here in the UK!)


  • Swifts have come to share their summers with us (almost all swifts are reliant on human dwellings (built mainly pre-war) for nest sites. We therefore feel linked to swifts and their annual breeding cycle.


  •  Adult swifts tend to be monogamous and the pair use the same nest site for years. There is a very human aspect to this behaviour and is very endearing to us pappy humans.


  • When a swift fledges (leaves the nest for the first time), it will spend up to three years in constant flight (eating, sleeping and smoke-bathing on the wing) –and only ever touch down on a firm surface when it returns to its place of birth (or very nearby if that site is occupied) to breed itself.  In those three years, the young swift might have flown the equivalent of fifteen times the circumference of the earth – without landing once! This permanent flight is completely unique to swifts –no other bird species can even approach such a feat.


  •  Swifts have been known to live for twenty years. In that time (due to the fact that they can’t perch or walk with any strength and are in the air permanently, unless breeding) a swift might have flown around 3 million miles. That’s around 120 times around the entire earth – in one short lifetime under its own power.


  • Swifts do almost everything in the air including eating. A typical swift will eat up to 100,000 small aerial insects each day by catching them in its open mouth. Try and do the same – try running constantly for a day, eating peanuts by flicking them into your open mouth whilst running.  Now trying running for three years, doing the same.


  • In order to avoid bad weather (rain, wind and anti-cyclones) swifts often fly into the wind at speed, to break clear of the bad weather in the quickest possible time, in order to continue to feed in better weather. Invariably in Britain (during wet summers) this can mean our adult swifts may be nesting in our houses, but feeding over the middle of France or Germany – returning each night to feed their young. No other bird does this or could even contemplate doing this.


  • If the adults are leaving the developing nestlings alone in the roof for long periods of time (travelling up to 600 miles away for the food) the young swifts have a survival strategy of becoming semi-comatose (vastly decreased heart beat and temperature) whilst their parents are away – again… a unique strategy to any bird species.


  • Swifts have been known to fly at speeds of 130mph. Only the Alpine Swift and peregrine are faster (and the peregrine is considerably slower in level flight - until it “stoops”). All other bird species must roost when sleeping. Swifts just climb to 20,000 feet and sleep on the wing...


  •  Swifts have exceptional eyesight – flying at dusk quite regularly and occasionally hunting at night - when almost all other birds have already roosted.


  • Because of their strange appearance (almost reptilian close up with their huge pink gaped mouths but tiny beaks), shrill screams and uniqueness, swifts appear in much folklore. They have been known as “Devil birds” or “Devil’s bitches” for hundreds of years and little was known about them for most of that time – in fact it was thought they hibernated in (British) mud through the colder months…


  • I am not aware of any other popular species of British bird with such a loyal following. Robins, blue tits, swallows, kingfishers always top polls of ones favourite bird here in the UK but only swifts have dozens of blogs and websites to their name.


  • Personally, since I learned to recognise the shape and sound of a swift in the summer (I must have been 7 or 8 years old I guess) I have been enthralled by swifts. They never used to nest inside our pre-war house when I was growing up, but I knew the streets they did nest in – and I used to cycle to those streets every day to see and listen to the mysterious Devil Birds. I am lucky enough now to have had them nest in the past three of our (my wife’s and my) houses in Berkshire. We have recently bought our first house in post-war Berkshire and I am desperate to attract my favourite birds of all back to nest with us. It might take a few years, but I am confident that one day, Apus apus will be back with us again.




Chris Marsh(non-registered)
Thank you for this! We'd been so worried about the swifts which nest nearby - in Dawlish, Devon - because of the severe weather. It seems they ride storms and are probably fine - feeding in France or Germany, as you say.
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