SWIFTS AND US
By Sarah Gibson
One day, reclined almost horizontal on a lounger in my garden, I saw small sickle-shaped birds flying impossibly high in the sky. The sight of their swirling flight made its way through my brain to the part where I keep information about wildlife I don’t see in suburbia and rifled through the filing cabinet until I came out with their name: swifts.
That filing cabinet gathers dust. It contains information from books with none of the vibrant details that come from real life. The creatures there include the likes of swifts, badgers, cuckoos, adders, curlews, and my favourite, resplendent in the centre page of my bird book but not sighted until I was in my twenties: gannets. They don’t live in memories, personalities, and behaviours. They are 2D. Incredible, fascinating, but a shadow of their true selves.
When I finally clap eyes on them, they’re promoted from the filing cabinet to a special place in my heart. The more unexpected their appearance the more special it feels. Swifts are very special.
Reading that goes to the heart is more enjoyable than reading that goes to the filing cabinet, so when the swifts appeared near my new home, I wanted nothing more than to read everything I could about them.
I had a feeling we don’t know much about swifts, and I was right. It didn’t bode well when, on page three, Gibson explained that her swift spotting group always went home when the bats appeared as the emergence of the bats is ‘a cross over point after which you seldom see a swift’. Not three days before I had been standing on the bridge over the river, watching bats on one side and swifts on the other. Had I witnessed something unusual, or does our knowledge of swifts barely scratch the surface?
The book opens with a tale of woe about a swift that Gibson adopts and then proceeds to injure (never throw a swift from a window, folks). Ordinarily this might have made me discard the book. Although apparently popular with many audiences, given how many nature books contain these stories, I don’t connect with stories of close human interaction with wildlife.
My connection with the natural world is very much at arm’s length. Fostering injured wildlife, taming hawks (why is that book everywhere?), breeding chicks, and even ringing birds pushes me further away rather than bringing me closer. The lines between help and hindrance are too blurry, the background of human interference too bleak.
I’m so fascinated by swifts, though, that I persevere. The book delivers on some fronts. It is a delightful celebration of community action, and I learnt some things about swifts that I didn’t know. It made me feel closer to them, and isn’t that what I truly wanted?
Two things stopped me loving it. First, far too much back story about the (mostly male) swift campaigners, which felt like filler. Second, lack of scientific detail. We don’t have much to go on with swifts, but on some occasions Gibson glossed over the details of the studies we do have, which for someone desperate to know how swifts sleep and how they stop flies sticking to their eyeballs was quite annoying.
Swifts and Us is worth reading, but if you come across a more detailed book on swifts let me know.
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