A summer with the birds (2/7). The swift, the largest of the gliders

A summer with the birds (2/7). The swift, the largest of the gliders

Swifts! These famous black arrows shaped like crossbows, with chiseled wings, dive in squadron formation into the canyons of our streets, tearing the sky with their war cries. Their sonorous presence composes the score of our summers. Their formidable epic began on Earth about 70 million years ago. The 92 species present today on our planet nest in trees, caves, cliffs, at the top of our buildings – in all cases at a height allowing them to take off by jumping into the void. All the swifts in the world share this crazy characteristic: their legs are too small to be able to walk on the ground or provide the initial momentum necessary for takeoff. So they dive or drop from a height, and their wings do the rest.

The swift is to the atmosphere what the swimming fish is to the ocean: inseparable. It eats and drinks in flight. It sleeps in flight (very high, up to 2500 meters, at night). It even courts and copulates in flight. For me, the swift “is” flight, at least its ultimate incarnation. The very apotheosis of the definition of bird. With proven aerodynamic and physiological perfection, it pirouettes, dives, glides among us, visible from the street and especially from the window. If the weather is nice, open yours. Listen. Look. Admire. Show your kids, your work colleagues. Alert the neighbors, even.

An aerial plankton lover

And what does this little devil of the sky feed on? But aerial plankton of course! (I told you, this bird is a celestial fish.) In other words, these millions of insects that you don’t see and that fly or float in the atmosphere. With its long, rigid wings, like a blade of a knife, the swift cuts through the air with sustained beats while its gaping beak swallows everything it comes across. Imagine a steel trap attached to a miniature fighter plane that can reach 111.5 km/h in flapping flight*. This makes it the fastest species in the world in horizontal mode (the fastest in vertical dive is the peregrine falcon, at 390 km/h). The oldest swift ever found was 18 years old. In his life, he had to fly nearly 6.5 million kilometers in successive round trips between Europe and Africa, more than 8 times the round trip to the Moon. Thriving, I presume, up there, in the airy liquid. In my next life, I would like to be called Apus apus – the scientific name for the European swift.

* Also called flapping, supported or rowed, flapping flight consists of flying by means of a repeated beating of the wings.

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