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Why Named Swifts??

by Arlene Rosenthal

Swifts by Arlene Rosenthal
"When British fanciers first saw these slender black birds (Reehanis) on their perches they could not help but compare them to their native European bird, the Chimney Swift". The above statement would make a bird watcher or an ornithologist cringe because, even though it has been repeated so many times in one form or another in numerous pigeon references through the years that it's become "truth", it most certainly isn't! Worldwide, these are approximately 96 species of Swift, and all of Europe only has six of them: 1) the Needle-Tailed Swift (Hirundapus caudacutus) 2) the Little Swift (Apus affinis) 3) the White-Rumped Swift (Apus caffer) 4) the Alpine Swift (Apus melba) 5) the Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus) 6) the Common Swift (or just plain "Swift") (Apus apus) Additionally, there are four other Swift species which appear in the Paleoarctic with some degree of regularity: the Cape Verde Swift (Apus alexandri), which is virtually restricted to the Cape Verde Islands; the Plain Swift (Apus unicolor), which is normally found only in the Cape Verde and Canary Islands; the Pacific or Fork-Tailed Swift (Apus pacificus), an accidental stray from Asia; and the Palm Swift (Cypsiurus parvus), another accidental stray, this time from tropical West Africa. Of these ten Swift species, the Common Swift has the most extensive range and is the only one normally found on the British Isles where it breeds every year, although some of the others have been known to occur there as rare and occasional strays. The Common Swift once nested on sea cliffs and in caves, hollow trees and nest holes made by other species, now it largely nests on the ledges of buildings and in their architectural niches. It is not known to have any particular association with chimneys, although it does sometimes utilize them. The species that IS closely associated with chimneys is the aptly named Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), an entirely different Swift species altogether and native only to the New World. It breeds in eastern North America and migrates to South America for the winter, primarily to the Andes of Peru. In the last century it has occurred maybe a grand total of two dozen times on the European side of the Atlantic as an extremely rare vagrant. Whenever this occurred it burned the "rare bird alert" phone lines with the news and brought avid birdwatchers running in droves from hundreds of miles around to admire the once-in-a-lifetime siting. While it once colony-nested almost exclusively within old hollow trees, by now virtually the entire Chimney Swift population prefers nesting in the holes and niches of man-made structures, especially in the depths of chimneys. Therefore, the British pigeon fanciers couldn't have been referencing "their" Chimney Swift simply because they don't have a chimney Swift! Instead, if they were referencing any Swift at all, it had to have been their Common Swift. Whoever it was who first wrote the above nonsense was obviously not an ornithologist or even a birdwatcher.

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