"Their lunatic limber screaming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out of the blue—"
"Swifts," Ted Hughes
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As the early morning sun heats up the summer lush earth, droplets of dew and rain evanesce into a dense mist. The banjo twang of green frogs accompanies a throaty bullfrog chanting "jug o'rum, jug o'rum."
The phoebe, breeding for the third time this summer, sits on a dead branch near the pond flicking its tail as it calls to its mate. The surrounding fog makes this scene look like a Japanese pen-and-ink drawing. A solitary wood thrush calls from the woods, joined now and then by a red-eyed vireo. Scarlet tanagers begin their daily chip-bonging. Mid-summer is upon us.
Birds are rather quiet now as they do not want to call attention to themselves or their not-quite-grown young still in need of protection. Large spring flocks of mourning doves and goldfinches have been reduced to occasional pairs.
Goldfinches are breeding since fresh thistle seeds are available sing now and again as they sit atop the lilac bush. Two mourning doves fly in, sit on the wire near the patio and peruse the land below. No, the feeders are still empty save the sugar water for the hummingbirds.
Fall flocking has begun. A line of tree swallows appears along the wire above the field looking like living clothes pins. The buzz of a cicada rises and fades away, a snoozy, sleepy sound I always associate with August. And with August cicadas, I associate swifts.
Alive with swifts
Go into any village or town in the early morning or late afternoon and look up. Chimney swifts with sharp-pointed, scimitar wings slash, dart and jet across the sky chittering to one another. In the early evening, Hudson is alive with these birds as are Saratoga Springs and Pittsfield. Both Chatham and New Lebanon have more than a few breeding pairs too.
In the Northeast, chimney swifts are the only resident breeder of the Apodidae. They are small, superfast, aerial acrobats that can be mistaken for no other species, so distinct that they have been nicknamed "flying cigars." The family taxonomic, Apodidae, translates as "without feet."
Yet swifts do have feet with strong, curved claws on very, very short legs. They are often compared to swallows (at one point they were called chimney swallows), but these birds cannot perch, thus are not passerines. Swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds, which have a very similar wing shape.
The genus/species, Chaetura pelagica, is partially a misnomer. Chaetura comes from the Greek: "chaite" meaning bristle and "oura" meaning tail, an appropriate designation for swifts do have spines in their stubby tails used as props when nesting in chimneys or hollow trees.
Linnaeus chose the species name "pelasgi" for a nomadic Greek tribe. This was unfortunately changed, probably a typographic error, to "pelagica" which means marine, or of the sea which has nothing to do with swifts at all.
Swifts are birds of the air. They snag flying insects, even ballooning spiders, on the wing; they snag floating feathers to build nests. These colonial nesters often choose chimneys for nesting, but better still are those flat roofed buildings in urban areas with nooks and ledges available for them to build saliva nests.
Swifts, even though quite small (5 1/4 inches), are always noticeable, first by sound, more chitter than scream I think; then by sight as they cut through the sky one after another flickering their wings with that odd jittery beat, clearing the area of hundreds of insects.
If you travel westward, look for the other three North American swifts: Vaux's, white-throated and black swifts. Vaux's and white-throated are fairly common from the Dakotas to the coast. The much larger black swift is rarer. Danny and I were lucky to observe them at McBurney Falls in Northern California.
One hundred species of swift ply the air worldwide. One of the most impressive is the alpine swift, large and slow. We observed a "scream of alpine swifts" (that is their term of venery) at dusk swishing, swording and dive bombing over and around a silhouetted minaret in Fez. Beautiful!
Sulking pays off
In a Native America myth, Great Raven leans over the earth and creates all birds. The swifts are ungrateful for their muddy appearance, long legs and short wings and take to the mountains to sulk. After years of sulking, Great Raven returns with a proposition: He'll make them creatures of the sky if they give up resting and moaning.
The swifts chitter among themselves. "I'm tired of sweat of sleep," says one. "And the filth of growth," says another. "How about those soft nests in wet fields? I could do without that for sure," says her mate who rebuilt the nest for the fourth time this summer. "Digging up worms! Ugh! That's what I hate!" pouts a young swift.
So Great Raven grants them the freedom of the air by binding the legs to the body, bending their wings like boomerangs, streamlining the feathers. Thus these limber and lunatic aerial showmen are born!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.