GOB 119 – Swift Justice
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine August 2019
Summer has always started on the same day for me… the day the swifts return. In my birding heydays I’d probably be out birding somewhere and suddenly become aware of their screaming dives across my path vacuuming up the aerial plankton just hatched over a reed-fringed lake. Whenever I have been asked what my favourite bird is, the answer has always been this master of the skies.
Our Common Swift maybe a monochrome blur, too short in the leg and too wide in the gape to be called beautiful but there is simply no more birdy bird among the other ten thousand contenders. In the several years from fledging to breeding they have no need to make landfall. Feeding, sleeping and mating on the wing they are the spirit of the air itself.
When I moved to my current urban home twenty years ago we would watch 14 birds weaving patterns in the blue above our house. Over the years they have dwindled to half a dozen birds and this year, they are barely a flash across the sky from my study window… just one pair left to lift my spirits.
Surely, my fellow citizens can hear their plaintive call for action? The swifts master the skies, but are not masters of their own destiny… that is in our hands alone. It is us that wreck their nest sites; we are the polluters of their realm and the destroyers of their flying food.
If bees are the insect indicators of climate change and land misuse then surely the swift is the barometer of birds. If swifts are in trouble then so is the general ecosystem. Forty percent are gone already but we have it within our grasp to halt the decline and build the road to recovery… it is simply a matter of collective will.
Ordinary people care and are beginning to do what we need done by replacing nest sites that have been built over or denied these denizens of the air. Voluntary effort is terrific but takes time to build so I call for legislation. A simple bill requiring all public buildings over a certain height to add nest boxes would provide sites overnight… anything from a clock tower to the town hall will do.
But that is just step one… all the nesting sites in the world will not fatten up the young or feed the parents. So, what is legislation step two? For me it’s obvious… require all central and local governments to stop using insecticides and herbicides. Add up the land in the control of government national and local and it’s a huge amount of real estate. Weed control can be achieved easily without chemicals… even if it means taking on an army of employees and volunteers to strim or hand weed our parks, gardens and other public places we will radically diminish the poison and pollution in our cities, towns and villages. One step further could be to ban their use anywhere that a public subsidy is applied whether it be the rail network or industrial infrastructure.
Paying people to control with a hoe rather than a chemical cosh takes people off the dole and ultimately that puts more money into the public purse. What is the point in all this labour saving if the labour is not saved but thrown on to the scrap heap. We all need to develop a love of the random rather than a slavish espousal of manicured public space.
Even without legislation there is something that ALL of us can easily do… by eating meat on one day less than we do now, we will meet climate control targets much quicker. We can feed ourselves despite being a small, crowded island without killing everything we can’t eat! And let’s set a date to completely outlaw single use plastic and bring swift justice to the wild world.