Swifts are the supersonic fighter planes of birds. The scimitar winged aerial masters. They can cruise at 26 mph, their default speed, but in screaming parties they can get competitive and by radically altering their aerodynamic, can get up to speeds of 69 mph. This makes them the fastest bird recorded in straight and level flight. Like a supersonic fighter, they can even hold this speed when flying upwards with the afterburners on. Only Peregrine falcons are faster, but they cheat by using gravity to add to their speed when in a stoop.
A Swift is all sooty brown that looks black from a distance (as you usually see them high up or disappearing in the distance). They have a pale throat and stiff, narrow scythe like wings. The tail is forked. Their tiny legs (undercarriage) are forward pointing so they can only hang onto a rough surface and are unable to grasp a perch so you will not see them on wires or branches, only in squadrons excitedly screaming across the sky.
Swifts feed on insects including flying beetles, flies, hover flies, moths, butterflies, flying ants, lacewings, and airborne spiders, catching up to 10,000 a day! When flying around in Central and Southern Africa, Swifts will range widely in search of food and also to avoid storms.
Swifts arrive in early May and are gone by August. As time is short, they nest soon after arriving. They breed in old buildings with access to the roof space or cracks in cliff faces. They make a shallow cup of straw and other material that has been gathered while flying. They lay only 2-3 eggs which hatch after 19 days. The young can fly at 42 days once they have finished flight school. The young pilots are independent on leaving the nest and migrate off to Africa within days in their smart uniforms. Incredibly, they remain airborne for the first 2 years of their flying career before settling down to nesting themselves. Swifts can even sleep while flying! Swifts are totally aerial except when on their nests.
There are 80,000 pairs of Swifts in Britain, but this number is declining mainly through loss of nest sites as modern houses have no access to their roof space like old houses and even old houses are being modernised. It is important to fit Swift bricks and nest boxes to help them. Their Latin name is ’apus apus’ which is derived from the Greek ’apous’ meaning ‘footless’, a reference to their small, weak legs. Swifts are often depicted without feet in old paintings, pottery and heraldic shields.