Swifts and sex on the wing - how does that work?

Its one of my favourite moments.  When The Little Birds start to arrive.  And in our house The Little Birds is a collective term for SwallowsMartins and Swifts.  The Sand Martins normally come first, closely followed by the House Martins, the Swallows and then lastly, the Swifts.  To me their arrival is proof categoric that summer is coming and the weather and the days, are nodding their head towards summer.  Even if you are not interested in birds, you will probably have noticed them I dont think any of our over-wintering birds fly like The Little Birds so the movement draws your eye.  They are fast and often low, chasing the small insects that are their staple food.  This year, the Sand Martins  clocked in first, down at Cockmarsh by The Bounty.  Then the Swallows at Smallholder Simons and then, at last today, I heard, but did not see because they are just too, well er..swift, the Swifts.  They are by far my favourite.  They remind me of unruly teenagers.  They race around the sky always at warp factor nine and always screaming noisily, sometimes joyfully I imagine and sometimes because they have a major strop on.  All these birds fly thousands of miles from their winter homes in Africa.  But the teenagers, well they insist on being just a little bit cooler than the rest.  They do almost everything whilst flying one side of their brain will disengage for a snooze, whilst the other keeps them functioning.  They have sex on the wing not quite sure how that works, so well have to use our imagination.  And the have no proper feet - they dont need them because they literally only land when they nest, and never perch.
We did until a few years ago have a healthy population of Swifts in Cookham, particularly around the Methodist Church but regrettably a reduction in nest sites pushed them away from the village.  Cue the help of  The Maidenhead, Marlow and Cookham Swift Group and the Cookham Wildlife Supporters.  What was needed was a way to draw the teenagers back in and what they like, is recommendation from their own kind.  Screaming peers who do nothing but enthuse about the villages amenities.  And so now, if you walk up Popes Lane or along Dean Lane among others, you will hear them.  Their voices are being piped on repeat from hand-made nest boxes.  Perfect digs for a breeding pair, who form a bond at 1 year old and then stay together for life, returning to the same nest site year after year so just imagine for a moment how important must that nest box be?  The happy couple lay 2 or 3 eggs and unlike your average Sparrow, if the weather turns bad, a chilled Swift egg can potentially still be viable - the cold slows the development of the embryo down, rather than arresting it completely.  Like many teenagers the little chicks often have a certain amount of puppy fat to keep them going just in case the parents cant fill the fridge quick enough for their gaping mouths, but probably unlike most teenagers, things get immediately very serious, very quickly when they fledge because then they must fly solo across the Sahara.  Lets hope that this time next year the teenagers will be back to take up residence once again at Cookham.

If you would be interested in hosting a Swift box next season, please contact the Cookham Wildlife Supporters. Photo credit: Bob Keene Cookham Wildlife Supporters


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