Common Swift, Gierzwaluw, Mauersegler, Andorinhão-preto, Vencejo Común
The Common Swift (Apus apus) is a medium-sized bird, superficially similar to the Barn Swallow or House Martin but somewhat larger. It is, however, completely unrelated to those passerine species, since swifts are in the separate order Apodiformes. The resemblances between the groups are due to convergent evolution reflecting similar life styles. Swifts nearest relatives are thought to be the New World hummingbirds and the Southeast Asian treeswifts.
Their scientific name comes from the Ancient Greek words ? “without”, and ????, “feet”. ?????, apous, meaning “without feet”. These birds have very short legs which they use only for clinging to vertical surfaces (hence the German name Mauersegler, literally meaning “wall-glider”). They never settle voluntarily on the ground, where they would be vulnerable to accidents and predation.
Common Swifts are 16–17 cm long with a wingspan of 38–40 cm and entirely blackish-brown except for a small white or pale grey patch on their chins which is not visible from a distance. They have a short forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang.
The call is a loud scream in two different tone pitches, of which the higher one is from the female and the lower one from the male. They often form ‘screaming parties’ during summer evenings where about 10-20 Swifts will gather and fly around their nesting area, all calling out to each other, and being answered by other Swifts within the nests. Larger “screaming parties” are formed at higher altitudes, especially late in the breeding season. The purpose of these is not known, but it appears to be the case that these parties, or many Swifts in them, will then ascend to sleep on the wing, while still breeding adults tend to spend the night in the nest.
Like Swallows, Common Swifts are migratory. Their summer breeding range runs from Spain and Ireland in the West across to China and Siberia in the East. They breed as far South as North Africa (in Morocco and Algeria) with a presence in the Middle East in Israel, Lebanon and Syria, across Turkey including the whole of Europe, as far North as Norway, Finland and most of sub-Arctic Russia. They migrate down to Africa by a variety of routes, so far poorly understood, ending up in Equatorial and Sub-Equatorial Africa, excluding the Cape. The map on this page is old and probably reflects the limits of Linnaeus’ knowledge at the time; in fact Common Swifts do not breed in the Indian Subcontinent.
A recent geolocator tracking study revealed that individuals of this species that breed in Sweden winter in the Congo region of Africa.
Swifts will occasionally live in old woodpecker nest holes in ancient forests, (some 600 having been reported as nesting in such circumstances in the Bialowieska forest in North Eastern Poland while a small colony lives in woodpecker holes and tree nestboxes at the RSPB’s reserve in the Ancient Caledonian Forest reserve at Abernethy in Scotland) and it can be surmised that together with cliffs this was their main nest resource, but with the almost complete removal of ancient forest from their nesting range they have adapted to occupy man-made sites and will build their nests of air-borne material caught in flight and bonded with their saliva, in suitable hollows in buildings, under tiles, in gaps beneath window sills, but most typically in the eaves and in gables. Swifts form reasonably faithful pairs that may last for years, and they will return to the same nesting site and partner year after year, rebuilding their nest when necessary. Swift nests degrade naturally over the long period (40 weeks or so) that the birds are absent on migration. Insect species such as clothes moths, carpet and larder beetles will eat them away, sometimes leaving only the most indigestible elements, typically feather shafts, behind.
Young Swifts in the nest can drop their body temperature and other metabolic elements and become torpid if bad weather prevents their parents from catching insects nearby. In this state they may survive for a few days without food.
Except when breeding, Swifts spend their lives in the air, living on the insects they catch in flight. They drink, feed, and often mate and sleep on the wing. No other bird spends as much of its life in flight. Feeding parties can be very large indeed in suitable insect-rich areas, such as wetlands. Reports of as many as 2000 Swifts feeding over flooded gravel pits, lakes and marshy river deltas are not uncommon, and may represent an ingress of Swifts from a huge area of maybe 100 kilometres radius. It has for example been suggested that many of Western Scotland’s Swifts fly to Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland to feed on the abundant and nutritious “Lough Neagh Fly”.
Afrikaans: Europese Windswael
Azerbaijani: Qara uzunqanad
Breton: Ar glaouer du, Glaouaer, Gwennili zu, Morian
Catalan: Falciot negre, Falzia, Saboc
Catalan (Balears): Falzia
Czech: Rorýs obecný
Welsh: Aderyn du’r llan, Aderyn yr eglys, Asgell hir, Asgell-hir, Deryn du’r llan, Gwennol ddu, Gwrach yr ellyll, Marthin ddu, Sgilpen, Y biwita, Y folwen
German: Mauersegler, Meuersegler
English: Common Swift, Eurasian Swift, European Swift, Northern Swift, Swift
Spanish: Vencejo Comun, Vencejo Común
Estonian: Piiritaja, piiritaja (piirpääsuke), Piiritaja e. piirpääsuke, Piiritaja, piirpääsuke, piirpääsuke
Basque: Falciot negre, Sorbeltz arrunt, Sorbeltz arrunta
Finnish: Tervakirskuja, Tervapääsky
Faroese: Feigdarsveimari, Svala
French: Martinet noir, Martinet noir d’Europe
Irish: Gabhlán Gaoithe
Gaelic: Gobhlan Mòr
Galician: Cirrio, Falciot negre, Noitebra
Manx: Gollan mooar, Gollan ny Greg
Italian: Rondone, Rondone eurasiatico
Japanese: yoaroppaamatsubame, yo-roppaamatsubame, Youroppa ama-tsubame
Cornish: Gwennol dhu
Latin: Apus apus
Norwegian: Fjellsulu, Kjærksolo, Tårnseiler, Tårnsvale
Polish: jerzyk, Jerzyk zwyczajny, Lelek egipski
Portuguese: andorinhão preto, Andorinhão-preto, Andorinhão-preto-europeu, Bacurau
Portuguese (Brazil): Bacurau
Romansh: Randurel pitschen
Russian: Chyorny Strizh
Scots: Gobhlan mor
Northern Sami: Náhkkesoadjá
Slovak: Dážd’ovník tmavý
Slovenian: crni hudournik, hudournik
Serbian: crna ciopa, crna ciopa (pištara), pištara
Sotho, Southern: Lehaqasi
Swedish: Tornseglare, Tornsvala
Swahili: Teleka wa Ulaya
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