The Pallid Swift

By Mr. Richard Hoath

 

One of the most common birds on campus is also probably the least observed. Actually it is more over campus than on campus. Large flocks of Pallid Swifts Apus pallida can be seen wheeling and circling over Tahrir throughout the year and their screaming cries can often be heard above the traffic. Watching them is only really a matter of looking up. In spring love is quite literally in the air as they will be courting and mating, and like with virtually all Pallid Swift activity, this will be done on the wing.

Swifts are amongst the most aerial of birds. The only thing that ties them to the ground is nesting. Between fledging last year’s brood to building this year’s nest it is quite likely the swifts will not have landed. They quite literally eat and sleep in flight. Indeed their legs are almost entirely useless, the Latin name for the swift family Apodidae means “without legs”, though the feet are strongly clawed for clinging at the nest site. Though they do nest in natural sites such as cliff faces, in the city cracks, crevices and  ledges of buildings have been readily adopted as cliff substitutes. The tiny nest is built of aerial flotsam grabbed in flight and glued together with saliva.

Swifts are generally drab birds so it comes as some surprise that their closest relatives, indeed members of the same Order, are those brightly-hued avian jewels, the hummingbirds. The Pallid Swift is typical of the group, some 16cm long, slim with slender sickle-shaped wings and a forked tail. It is uniform beige brown in color with a pale throat. It is an insect eater, catching minute insects and invertebrates, aerial plankton if you like, in flight. Though the bill itself is small, the gape is enormous, ideally designed for catching its tiny prey.

Much has been argued about how fast a swift can fly. Watching them career over Tahrir Square the impression given is that of very quick indeed. The record of a flock of Brown-throated Spine-tail Swifts in India flying at 320 kmph is now largely discredited though the more modest claim of 170 kmph for the Alpine Swift, a close relative of the Pallid Swift is more widely accepted. Built for speed, swifts can undoubtedly fly very fast.

In Spring the hurtling flocks of Pallid Swifts are worth checking out for migrating Common Swifts heading north to European breeding grounds. It is very similar to the Pallid but uniformly darker. The rare Alpine Swift, also a migrant, is much larger with a clean white belly and throat. Egypt’s fourth swift is the rarest, the Little Swift easily told by its white rump. There have been very few sightings in Egypt but it could just make it onto the campus bird list as one of those records is from just across the river in, or rather over, Zamalek.

 

Carwardine, Mark The Guinness Book of Animal Records Enfield: Guinness, 1995.

Goodman, S. and P. Meininger The Birds of Egypt Oxford: OUP, 1989.

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