Common swifts are very active around Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois. They can be seen all day long from our roof terrace, catching flying insects over the vineyards.
Common swifts and house martins are frequently seen in Aude, whereas swallows are somewhat more unusual. But all of them are excellent at catching flying insects and spiders. Yes, spiders don’t just crawl around but are blown around on the wind as a way to distributing themselves.
They feed at a height of between 50 and 100 metres, although they tend to stay a bit lower if it is very windy. They drink by skimming surface water in full flight.
There are many interesting facts about common swifts. Their Latin name is Apus apus. This comes from the Ancient Greeks, who thought that swifts were a type of swallow without feet. ‘A’ means ‘without’ and ‘pus’ means ‘feet’.
Did you know that they never land on the ground? If they did, their tiny legs and long sickle-shaped wings would prevent them from taking off again.
Swifts can spend up to 10 months in the air. But they can occasionally rest clinging to vertical surfaces, such as the side of buildings or rocks. This is also where they build their nests, high up against a vertical surface.
So how do these birds sleep? In the air. They can climb to 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) in the air. They sleep in mid-flight as they slowly glide down. Their in-built altimeter wakes them when they get close to the ground. Incredible, isn’t it?
Distances mean nothing to common swifts. Common swifts migrate to Africa in winter. They return to Europe from May to August.
Swifts nesting in London could fly to Germany to catch flies all night, before returning to their nests in the morning.
Their forked tail and aerodynamic wings help swifts to reach speeds of up to 111.6km/h (69.3mph). Their shape has been compared to a boomerang. They certainly dart through the air at breakneck speed.
Because they are so fast, they have very few predators. If any raptor tried to catch one, it would simply outfly it! If they are ever targeted during a rare rest, swifts are known to play dead (this is called ‘thanatosis’).
Swifts are born remarkable. As chicks, they have the rare ability to slow their metabolic rate and go into quasi-hibernation.
Fledglings are completely independent when they leave the nest. The young birds fly to Central Africa, where they stay for four years until they are mature. During this time, they never touch a solid object and stay airborne all the time.
Swifts have a life expectancy of 8-10 years. Male and female swifts look the same. The scientific term for this is that they are a sexually monomorphic species. They even mate in the air.
They forms pairs for life, meeting up at the same nest every year. Female birds usually build the nest, while the male birds go off hunting for food. A nest typically consists of 2-3 eggs.
Even the way swifts eat is special. They collect insects in a food pouch at the back of their throat, where they are mixed with saliva to form a ball. This ball – known as a ‘bolus’ – is then stored until they are back on the nest or snacked on periodically. A single bolus can contain thousands of insects.
Early evening is a good time to see and hear swifts hunting in flocks. Their shrill shrieks fill the air as they feed on flying insects.
Next time your watch swifts gliding through the sky over Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois, hopefully you have learned that common swifts are far from common!