Swift Folklore

common swift flies against the sky

For centuries the enigmatic Swift and its extraordinary life cycle have left observers struggling to understand its true nature. Identified as The Devil’s Bird, it was thought that they hibernated in mud, that they had no legs, and they were the screaming souls of dead people departing to hell…..And yet Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, has for centuries been used by Swifts who lay their eggs in the same cracks in the wall in which worshippers place their prayer notes to God.

With the Latin name Apus Apus literally meaning footless it’s not surprising that Swifts have generated some way-out conclusions – the truth is of course far more bizarre.  

In Heraldry the Swift or Martlet, being without feet, was used as the symbol of the fourth son, because its footlessness represented his inability to inherit, and walk on, his ancestral lands. In China the saliva rich nest are used to make that highly prized delicacy Birds’ Nest Soup supposedly rich in nutrients and aphrodisiac qualities! Shakespeare mixes the metaphors for us in Macbeth when King Duncan and Banquo call it a 'guest of summer' and see it mistakenly as a good omen when they spot it outside Macbeth's castle, shortly before Duncan is killed. Accounts exist that in Moray the Swift was believed to bring bad luck to river fishermen, while historically farmers in southern counties were encouraged to shoot at them as they were believed to be ‘regular limbs of Satan’. However one farmer in Hampshire shot seventeen of the birds out of bravado and subsequently had seventeen of his finest cows die! In Wales, The Swift is seen as a weather cock, if feeding high up in the air the weather is settled for fair, and low down when rain is approaching. Its screaming is supposed to indicate a change of weather from fair to rain.

The truth is most people are pleased to see the arrival of Swifts. “One Swallow doesn’t make a Summer” but a Swift is a different matter being the last of our seasonal visitors to arrive:

“They’ve made it again,Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’sStill waking refreshed, our summer’sStill all to come –“
— Swifts Ted Hughes

But it took a long time for us to understand the truly epic existence of the Swift. Mating on the wing was first described by the naturalist Gilbert White (1789).  About the same time Edward Jenner (inventor of vaccination) was convinced that Swifts migrated at a time when it was still thought by some that they simply disappeared into mud or pools for the winter.  Jenner marked some Swifts by cutting their toes off (well at least he knew they had some!).  He found that they returned to the same place to breed in a fattened and healthy condition and was more than ever certain that his theory of migration was correct. A French Airman in the 1914-18 war was gliding down in his plane with engines turned off so as to avoid detection when at 10,000 feet he found himself amongst birds which were apparently motionless.  One of these birds was found the following day caught in the engine and found to be a Swift. Moving on many years to 1947 and the renowned ornithologist David Lack began watching Swifts in Oxford and this became one of the longest such projects in the world and which continues to this day.  In 1956 this resulted in the classic book Swifts in the Tower.

Perhaps the most persistent myth of all is that Swifts are closely related to Swallows and Martins.  The truth is this is just a trick of convergent evolution and the Swift’s closest relative is actually the Hummingbird!