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The swifts overhead

As I write, I have a sunny view over a valley in the heart of that part of Tuscany which is sometimes called ‘Chiantishire’. The village we are staying in is called Panzano-in-Chianti, and it is located on the road known as the Chiantigiana (although on the maps it goes by its numerical designation, route 222, which runs from Florence to Siena). Lunch later today will be courtesy of the local butcher, and there are no prizes for guessing what the wine will be. For now, though, the principal sounds are the bells of the church (Santa Maria, located at the top of the hill), the cicadas and the shrill calls of the swifts circling overhead.

There are a lot of swifts, and they do a lot of flying. From a superficial perspective these dark-coloured yet fascinating summer visitors look a little bit like swallows and martins but they are in fact more closely related to hummingbirds. Their wings are much bigger in proportion to their bodies, which is appropriate as they spend most of their lives in flight – so much so that the ancients believed that they didn’t have any feet (actually they do – they have very short legs with which they can cling to vertical surfaces – although their Latin name, apus, derives from the Ancient Greek a pous, meaning ‘without feet’).

They eat, mate and even sleep on the wing. They fly higher than swallows and martins, and for great distances in a matter of days – once, a bird ringed in England was found in Spain four days later. They are fast, too; the hobby, another summer visitor, is one of few birds of prey that can catch them. They do land to nest (usually in tall buildings nowadays, although holes in trees and cliffs are also used), but unlike swallows and martins you’ll never see them perched on telephone wires.

These airborne symbols of summer can be seen in towns and rural areas all over Europe and Asia between April (May in places as far north as Britain) and August; they winter down in sub-Saharan Africa. It is most likely because of their association with summer that I find it pretty hard not to smile when I look up and see the swifts.

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