A Swift reading list - Some fabulous factual, lyrical and art books on Swifts by Catherine Day

  • In the depths of winter, after a week of snow on the ground and in the week before Christmas, spare a few moments to turn your thoughts to summer and our wonderful Swifts with a book list to warm the heart! At the moment, our swifts are in Africa, south of the Equator. These books will, between them, tell you their life stories, their biology and ecology, reveal the wonders of their incredible journeys, and portray them through the words and the art of some of our top writers and artists. 

    Apart form the classic ‘Swifts in a Tower’, books on swifts have started appearing only in the last five years – which perhaps speaks volumes about how enigmatic these birds have remained until the era of modern technology-assisted studies, and the realisation that their numbers are plummeting so badly that they are now, as of 2021, on the UK’s Red List of Threatened Species.

    So, here are seven wonderful books celebrating this amazing, exuberant summer visitor.

    ‘Swifts in a Tower’ by David Lack (Author) & Andrew Lack (Contributor), Foreword by Christopher M Perrins; published by Unicorn Books, June 2018.

    This iconic study of the common swift, first published in 1956, was the first book anywhere to be written uniquely on this species. It tells the story of David Lack’s observations over many years of the swift colony in the tower of the Oxford University Natural History Museum. The colony is still monitored every year and so is the longest continuously-studied swift colony in the UK (and probably anywhere in the world).

    ‘Swifts in a Tower’ was out of print for many years and, for swift-lovers, became a bit of a holy grail on the second-hand market. Finally, in 2018, it was updated and republished in association with the RSPB and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of the RSPB’s Oxford Swift City
    project. It includes a new chapter by David Lack’s son, Andrew, bringing the story of this remarkable bird and colony into the 21st century. It also has beautiful, newly-commissioned cover artwork and endpapers by Colin Wilkinson of the RSPB.

    David Lack (1910-1973) is one of the most celebrated names in the study of birds. His pioneering life-history studies resulted in an explosion of interest in the ecology of birds as well as the landmark popular books The Life of the Robin, Darwin's Finches, and Swifts in a Tower. Even during World War II he was able to study bird migration while involved in secret work to develop radar.

    ‘Swifts and Us, The Life of the Bird That Sleeps in the Sky’ by Sarah Gibson, published by William Collins, 2021 hardback & 2022 paperback.

    Sarah Gibson has worked for the Shropshire Wildlife Trust for over 20 years. She barely noticed a swift until her fifth decade in life and only thought of writing about them in her 6th! The result is an extremely readable book, full of information that is given with lots of personal feeling and insights. 

    It is a fascinating story of discovery, exploring the lives of swifts, their ancient ancestry and what they meant to people over the centuries. Sarah describes how swifts are now in real danger: often unintentionally, we are stealing their nesting places, depriving them of their season of rest and ability to raise the next generation. Thankfully, there are people in the UK and across Europe who have come together in the last decade, forming a closely-linked swift community and striving to ensure a future for these remarkable birds. Part of the book tells their story and Sarah’s meeting with many of them.

    ‘Vesper Flights’ by Helen Macdonald, published by Jonathan Cape, 2020 hardback & 2021 paperback.

    This is a wonderful collection of Helen Macdonald’s best-loved writing together with some new pieces covering a thrilling range of subjects from starling murmurations to mushrooms, from a peregrine swooping from a tower to catching swans for swan-upping, from watching thunderstorms to watching boxing hares, and in the chapter that gives its title to the book, there is a sightly longer piece on the flight of swifts, the wonder of their lives spent entirely on the wing and how we humans came to know about this.

    Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, naturalist and historian of science. All of her talents come together in this wonderfully evocative and personal book about the natural world and the human relationship with it. This is writing that conjures emotion, love for the natural world and heaps of
    visual imagery by the writer of the best-selling ‘H is for Hawk’.

    ‘The Screaming Sky’ by Charles Foster, published by Little Toller Books, 2021 hardback & 2022 paperback.

    A beautiful small-format book with a huge heart. Swifts are Charles Foster’s joy and obsession. Inspired by his feelings of euphoria when they arrive at his home town of Oxford in spring to a sense of bereavement when they leave in July, he embarks on a journey with them through
    writing, and catches up with them in Mozambique, over the cliffs of southern Spain and amongst the worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

    Charles Foster is a prize-winning author. His prose is lyrical, punchy, scientific and evocative all at the same time. Immensely readable. Read this and next time our swifts arrive here you’ll look at them differently as you picture the journeys they have been on since their last visit. As the book
    jacket says: ‘Fiercely rejecting the idea that swifts are ‘just birds – indeed that anything is ‘just’ anything - ‘The Screaming Sky’ is a radical engagement with the infinite complexity of a species. It steps back, looks to the skies and stands in awe of these magnificent birds’.

    The book jacket and the four or five beautiful black and white drawings interspersed in the book are by wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy (see below).

    ‘On Crescent Wings, A Portrait of the Swift’ by Jonathan Pomroy, published by Mascot Media, 2018.

    This book is a treat! It is a beautiful art book that also tells a story: the story of the hundred days of an artist’s Swift year – the hundred days that Swifts are with us during the summer before they migrate again for Africa.

    Jonathan Pomroy lives and works as a wildlife artist in Yorkshire and is fascinated by Swifts. As he says, “Swifts present a huge challenge to an artist. Aesthetically they are a designer’s dream, a bold crescent shape with the visual force of an arrow.” In this book of fabulous pencil drawings and watercolour paintings born of years of observing and sketching swifts, Jonathan portrays every moment of their lives, from eggs in the nest to adult birds way up among the clouds. Everything he draws is from personal observation as he is one of the lucky ones amongst us to have lived with swifts nesting under his eaves or in his swift nest boxes.

    The text in the book describes his experiences, and also provides information on swifts and their life cycle along with advice on how to attract swifts to new nest boxes to start your own colony. Here is a quote from the book about his thoughts in late summer after the swifts have left that is
    especially perfect if you are reading this in mid-winter:

    ‘With the Swifts gone, my thoughts often turn to winter. I love winter. In the darkest, coldest days, sometimes while sketching, my thoughts can suddenly turn to Swifts, This reminds me how fragile life on earth is and how beautiful the world is for its infinite variety and extremes of weather. Swifts connect with one of those extremes, and when sitting in my garden on a balmy summer evening my thoughts can similarly switch to my love of winter, imagining myself in a blizzard on the North York Moors’.

    ‘Flight Lines, Tracking the Wonders of Bird Migration’ by Mike Toms, published by the British Trust For Ornithology, 2017.

    This is a beautifully-produced book printed on quality glossy paper and is the result of a joint project between the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and the SWLA (Society of Wildlife Artists).

    Authored by Mike Toms who joined the BTO staff in 1994, this is an immensely readable book that is packed with facts. It unravels the wonders of bird migration and describes all the amazing advances that have been made through studying bird migration with geolocators and satellite
    technology, and the new insights that have resulted from all the new science. The book discusses many species, amongst whom of course are Swifts. As an example of the multitude of new facts that have been revealed is that our Swifts typically complete their journey of 10,000 km from the UK to Central Africa in under a month.

    A huge attraction of this book is undoubtedly the copious colour photographs, paintings and drawings throughout (many of them full-page or even double-page) of the birds and landscapes both in the UK and in the birds’ wintering grounds abroad. Here you will find artworks by Britain’s
    top wildlife artists. The book also includes photos and artworks done in the field by a team of SWLA artists and BTO scientists who went on an expedition to the Sahelian wintering grounds of some of our key summer migrants.

    ‘Swifts and Swallows’ by Mike Unwin, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2018.

    An excellent, concise RSPB book with great photos on every page. This is a must-have to prepare you for our summer visitors. With this book at home, you’ll never mistake a swift from a swallow, despite their similar long wings and dashing flight, and the fact that both feed on insects, breed in buildings and are long-distance migrants from Africa. This book describes their ID, their ancestors and relatives, their life cycles, how they fly, feed, build their nests, raise their young and migrate. It discusses life and death and the ‘human factor’ – a brief section describing these species in art and culture and finally how to protect and help swifts and swallows at home.

    Where to buy:

    You can buy the RSPB Spotlight book and some of the other books above from the RSPB online
    shop where all profits go to the the RSPB.

    Buy On Crescent Wings directly from the artist's website.

    This online store stocks a huge range of wildlife, ecology and conservation books and offers
    excellent service.

    Or, of course, ask your local bookshop!

    Catherine Day 2022/12/19

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