The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
Swifts live in perpetual summer. They inhabit the air like nothing on the planet. They watched the continents shuffle to their present places and the mammals evolve. They are not ours, though we like to claim them. They defy all our categories and present no passports as they surf the winds across the worlds. They sleep in the high thin air – their wings controlled by an alert half-brain. This is a radical new look at the Common Swift – a numerous but profoundly un-common bird – by Charles Foster, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Being a Beast. Foster follows the swifts throughout the world, manically, lyrically, yet scientifically. The poetry of swifts is in their facts, and this book, in Little Toller’s monograph series, draws deeply on the latest extraordinary discoveries.
As I write this it is that time of year that I become excited, I know they are coming, and I have heard reports of sightings, but I am out walking most days eyes searching the sky looking and hoping to see the return of my most favourite birds that visit us for the summer months. The Swift (Apus apus) but as I have been waiting patiently, I have been reading The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster that has just been released by Little Toller Books.
Swifts spend all their time on the wing and only come to land to breed, they even sleep on the wing and in the book the author recounts details of a WWI pilot while flying at night coming across a group of Swifts that seemed to be sleeping in a cloud even airline pilots have recounted sighting of Swifts.
But they like many species are under so much pressure in our modern world whether it is the insects they feed on or their nesting sites diminishing. Yet imagine a summer without seeing a flock of screaming Swifts flying low over your house. An RSPB survey said numbers had fallen by 53% between 1995 and 2016. That is a shocking statistic and more must be done to save them.
I read recently that there are 113 species of Swift in the world (International Ornithological Congress), and we do have the odd rarity of Swift that crosses the channel to the UK most summers. But for the Common Swift they are built for flying and not for landing just look at those incredible wings and the forked tail. Ever since I was a boy I was fascinated with Swifts and to this day the excitement of seeing my first of the summer. But sad when the time comes for them to depart on their return journey to Africa. I have spent a few weeks during the winter in Africa watching Swifts and bid them farewell until the summer when I left for home. It was the naturalist Gilbert White said that Swifts hibernated under water.
In The Screaming Sky, Charles Foster follows them from Africa in their wintering home and then counting the days for their migration and their perilous journey to Europe and the UK. Foster also talks about how strange weather can create vast gatherings of Swifts and in 2020 off Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire there was a gathering of more than 46,000 birds, I cannot even begin to imagine what a sight that must have been.
This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves our annual summer visitor and the illustrations by Jonathan Pomeroy just make this book so perfect. This is a book that will sit perfectly among my vast natural history books and will cherish re-reading during the cold dark winter months after the swifts have departed. But first I am off for a walk in the hope of seeing my first sighting of the summer. It has been a long winter. I yearn to hear a flock of screaming swifts again.
You can follow Charles Foster on Twitter: @@tweedpipe
And Little Toller: @LittleToller
My thanks to Little Toller Books for the review copy of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster.
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster is published by Little Toller Books and was published on 14th April 2021. Available to order through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org