The Story of Sal the Swift
By Emily Wilson
If you’ve ever laid on the grass and looked up at the sky during a warm summers day, you will have probably seen that distinctive anchor shape which is unmistakably a swift. During the summer months they dance high in the sky singing at the top of their lungs. However, despite being a common site, the lives of swifts are relatively unknown. I had the privilege of learning a bit more about swifts and experiencing them first hand when Sal came into my life.
When I first got Sal I had never seen such an unhappy bird, I got him into an enclosure where I let him get used to his surroundings and warm up for an hour or two. I then gave him a meal of wax worms. Wax worms are very juicy and are great for helping birds to put on weight and to hydrate them. Over the course of Sal’s rehabilitation I estimated that he ate 1050 wax worms! Unlike other birds swifts wont feed themselves and rarely gape for food. This means they must be force fed. After having many wax worms flicked in my face Sal finally figured out that I was here to help him. I only had to open his mouth wide enough to pop the tip of the wax worm in and he would do the rest. Within the first 24 hours of being with me Sal had put on a staggering 5 grams. This was mostly water weight as he was very dehydrated from lying in the hot sun. Over the next few days Sal went from strength to strength. After two weeks of feeding Sal every hour from 7am to 9pm he had almost doubled his body weight.
Sal started to become a lot more active and flapping his wings. He was ready to go! Swifts struggle to take off from the ground so need a little encouragement. The moment I launched him into the air and saw him fly away was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was so pleased to see him back in the sky but would also miss waking up to his little face every morning. Just when I thought he release couldn’t have gone any better, I saw him flying off into the distance with another wild swift, this made all the work I had put in over the last couple of weeks worth it. Juveniles such as Sal will now be heading to Africa for their next big adventure.
Once fledged it is thought swifts will spend the first two years of their life on the wing. Swifts will only leave their aerial habitat to rear chicks and to occasionally roost in trees; this results in adult swifts spending 10 months on the wing. Everything else; eating, sleeping, drinking and mating is done in the air. That’s like trying to eat a sandwich and have a nap while running all day and night! Swifts really are the masters of multi-tasking.
It is thought that swifts are able to sleep on the wing by resting one half of the brain at a time, similarly to dolphins and frigate birds. This method of sleeping allows the animal to stay alert while resting and regaining energy. However, this hypothesis has not yet been proven in the common swift.
Swifts can live for as long as 20 years. Experts have estimated that an adult swift will fly the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back seven times through out its life time.