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Swifts are Weird

A blog for Swift Awareness Week

By Jim Unwin

I walk a lot, and I cycle a lot. I’m old enough now that I own shoes specific to each activity. I can travel only a few minutes from my front door and find myself relatively far from, if not civilization, then at least the suburban sprawl. At the moment the fields are full of skylarks, hanging high above the half grown cereal, regularly spaced, warbling like a 56k modem. There are honey buzzards in the next valley, roosting opposite the incinerator plant. On the sea cliffs to the south are peregrines with chicks. Beneath the falcons are huge parapuzosia ammonite fossils, 80 million year old, and covered twice a day by the tide.

Above all this are swifts. Looking up I can see the wheeling crescents, circling around one another, looping and screaming. Tiny, strange, flying machines that feel as distant from me as a human as I do from a cactus, or a chair.

I’m a designer who is fortunate to have worked with people that I find interesting, on projects that have taken me around the world. I am not, however, an especially far-out thinker. Much of my practice, my brand, is based on being a safe pair of hands who will deliver practical, achievable solutions. But I do find myself, in my spare time, drawn to more extreme designs. Solutions so focussed they end up being a bit... weird. Things like stealthy aeroplanes, furniture dreamt by algorithm, or the mantis shrimp’s eyes.

Make no mistake, Apus apus, the swift; though tiny, common, and often distant, is deeply weird. Up close they are dull and scruffy. They are oddly proportioned and ungainly, with stubby bodies and even stubbier legs. They carry even uglier parasites. I’ve not smelt a swift, but I imagine they are rather pungent.

But they are so singular in purpose: They fly.

Airbus’ Zephyr drone, the solar-powered pinnacle of human-engineered sustained flight, can stay aloft for 25 days. This is not even a tenth of what the swift can achieve, and there is plenty more written about the bird’s incredible abilities that I don’t need to repeat here. Evolution has so optimised them for the one role, at the expense of all others, that the mind boggles. Everything about the swift is pressed against the tensioned edge of winged possibility. You and I may look awestruck at ultra-distance runners, or mountain climbers, people who push the limits of what humans can achieve, but imagine if your whole species existed on that tenuous margin.

The swift is a weird, dirtbag flying machine and I love everything about it. It is a brilliant example of extreme optimisation toward a niche. A bird which flies at the boundaries of endurance and speed, and can be seen - for three months every year - congregating over your house.

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