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Part 21 - The Swift and the Linnet

Swift - Apus apus

Swifts are just that. They fly faster than almost any other bird, covering quite staggering distances in the process. A swift can cover 500 miles in a day and as they are long-lived birds, this means a quite extraordinary 3.65 million miles in a not atypical 20-year life span.

Swifts only land to breed, both eating and sleeping on the wing. They are with us only briefly – generally from early May until mid-August, arriving and departing en masse. They nest almost exclusively in holes and crevices, especially on the rafters of older houses with open eaves, although 'nest' is not really an accurate description of the shallow saucer of material collected on the wing and glued together with saliva, where swifts lay their two or three white eggs. The installation of PVC soffits and bargeboards leave them homeless and are thought to be the main reason for a decline in the swift's population. Presumably some swifts do nest in Kingston but do please let me know if you have them in your house. There is a colony in Lewes.

The name Apus means 'footless', although it's hard to believe that swifts were once believed to be altogether without feet. Their legs are certainly very short and grounded swifts find it hard to get aloft again –although they can do it. I remember finding what was probably a very recently fledged bird on the ground. It made no effort to evade me when I picked it up. I threw it gently up in the air and off it went, unharmed.

Most of the local names for swifts have satanic connections - plain old 'devil bird' being the most common. This may be because of their habit of wheeling about in groups, screaming, because of their almost entirely black plumage or simply because they come and go so rapidly and mysteriously, vanishing in wet weather – as they cannot feed well in rain – to re-appear suddenly out of the sky.

Swifts are quite unrelated to the martin and swallow family – the hirundines – being closer in evolutionary terms to nightjars.

Linnet – Carduelis cannabina

Linnets are much in evidence on the Downs in May, although probably much overlooked as they are not very approachable and only fairly close up can you see the red forehead and breast of the male. With his grey head and chestnut brown back, the male is a very handsome bird indeed and his twittering song more musical than that of the greenfinch if not quite as sweet as the goldfinch, close cousins both.

It was the song of the linnet – and the goldfinch too - that condemned millions of them in Victorian times to spend their lives in cages, most families then having one or other species as a confined pet, as does the one in the old musical hall song, My old man, said follow the van.

Linnets nest in bushes, especially gorse and may have as many as three broods in a good year. They are sociable birds, even in the breeding season, and in winter team up with other finches in large flocks, often on the coast. The population of linnets – like that of almost all farmland birds – has declined steeply since the 1960s – almost certainly because of the lack of weed seeds, resulting from agricultural intensification. Recently, however, the spread of oilseed rape (much in evidence this year!) may have helped to stabilise numbers as the seeds are available over a long period where both autumn and spring-sown varieties are grown.

Linnets don’t – as far as I know – ever come to bird feeders (but do prove me wrong, please!) but they do sometimes breed in large rural gardens so keep a look out for them. Here, they will feed on a variety of weed seeds including those of chickweed. Linnets appear to be almost exclusively vegetarian and, most unusually, even feed their young on regurgitated seeds. The nest can be anywhere from ground level to three metres (ten feet) and between four and six eggs are laid.

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