The uncommon Common Swift

09 May 2018

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It’s 18:15, sunny and a Sunday. The welcoming warmth of the sun dictates a lazy afternoon, and why not, an ice-cold lemonade somewhere in the heart of old Nicosia. Passers-by seem easy-going, the atmosphere relaxed and this homemade lemonade just what we needed. 

But nothing complements this urban experience more than the sight and sound of screaming Common Swifts Apus Apus as they effortlessly tear through the air with their scythe-shaped wings above our heads and centuries-old buildings. It only takes a few minutes of watching them and then it’s done, you’re captivated. Fascination deepens and admiration grows as you catch yourself delving to know more about them. It’s hard not to, really.

Common Swifts, and the rest of the ancient Apodidae family, have so fundamentally adapted to an aerial existence that it has profoundly affected all aspects of their lives. Common Swifts are the only birds that do everything on the wing: eat, drink, mate, gather nesting materials and sleep. A recent study published in the journal Current Biology, revealed that Swifts can remain airborne for most of the year without ever coming down, confirming that these birds are truly born to fly. More specifically, the data showed that when Swifts are not in their nests (i.e. during their 10-month non-breeding period) they spend more than 99% of their time in flight, making the species the new record holder for longest uninterrupted flight! And as for how and when they catch some Z’s while up there, researchers speculate that Swifts could be saving energy by riding currents of hot air and by taking “power naps” as they slowly descent from as high as 3,000m each dawn and dusk.

Every year, Common Swifts arrive in Cyprus to nest beginning of February and by end of July they return to sub-Saharan Africa to spend the winter. Any sightings of Swifts from August until October are more than likely to be those of passage birds who have begun their journey later in the summer from northern Europe and are on their way to Africa. These agile flyers are the fastest of all birds in level flight (the peregrine falcon is the fastest of them all, but only when doing very high and steep dives). Although superficially similar to Swallows and House Martins, Common Swifts are bigger and can be readily distinguished by their long narrow wings, short forked tail and dark brown plumage which is what gives them that characteristic dark silhouette against the sky. Unlike Barn Swallows and House Martins, Common Swifts don’t build nests. Instead, they make do with suitable eaves and holes under tiles or roofs usually in old buildings.

As in other parts of the world, so in Cyprus too, the population trend for the Common Swift is worrying. The current estimated breeding population for Cyprus is between 15,000 – 60,000 birds but this is an already decreased number. BirdLife Cyprus’ common bird monitoring data shows a yearly decline of up to 5% between 2006 – 2015 within farmland areas (the key habitat for the species) and an uncertain trend when all habitats are taken together.

When in the nest, Swifts will do push-ups to strengthen their wings before their first flight

Common Swifts have become so accustomed to humans and have so well adapted their nesting habits that now they nest exclusively in man-made sites in cities and villages. Seeing them using a “natural” nest-site such as a hollow in a broken tree is now unusual. This adaptation of theirs allows us to enjoy these spectacular aerial acrobats from the comfort of our balcony, but at a price. With the urban landscape rapidly changing and modernizing, nesting options for Swifts are becoming fewer and fewer. The possibility of old buildings being renovated or demolished is very high, and when they are, nests, too, are demolished. The problem becomes apparent when we consider that Common Swifts return to the same nest site every year. Once their nest is gone they will take a long time to find another suitable nesting site. This is why it is important to leave existing nest sites undisturbed and not block access to them. This is also why many passionate and Swift-enchanted people from all over the world have been advocating for Swifts and have been placing nest boxes on buildings in an effort to offset this loss. Click here to find out what BirdLife Cyprus is doing to save Swifts in Cyprus.
It’s getting late and it’s time to head home. As we walk down a side street of Ledra street, I can’t help but admire the timeless beauty of the old houses and also think: under a small dark eave up there, a Swift chick is doing something extraordinary. It is strengthening its wings by doing “press-ups” as if an innate wisdom tells it it’s time to prepare for that make-or-break maiden flight and the perpetual aerial adventure that lies ahead.

Happy swift-watching!

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