Sunday, September 04, 2011

Swifts in the city

I live on the 18th floor and have a great view of the Eastern half of Singapore. It's also a great opportunity for bird-watching. What I can see from my window are not pigeons and crows, but those fascinating birds the swifts. Here's a video of one twirling in circles at the same height as my building.

Swifts circling outside my window from brandon seah on Vimeo.

The main problems with swift-watching are apparent from the video: they fly very fast and they're up very high. Living on the top floor solves the second problem but not the first, though sometimes I can get a fleeting close-up glimpse when they return to perch or nest in the roof above me.

When trying to look up more information about them, I found an entry on Ria Tan's website on Sungei Buloh flora and fauna. Swifts belong to a family of birds called the Apodidae, and the common swifts are in the genus Apus, which means "no feet". Swifts actually do have feet, but they're small and used mostly for perching rather than walking.

Here's some interesting facts I learned:

  • They live most of their life "on the wing" - eating, drinking, mating, and even sleeping
  • Their name is apt: they're among the fastest fliers in the world, achieving up to 110 km/h
  • Flying insects make up most of their diet
  • Swifts are common, although the edible-nest swifts are threatened by indiscriminate nest-harvesting
  • They're well-adapted to live in anthropogenic environments

Swifts can be confused with swallows, because both have the crescent-shaped wing profile characteristic of fast fliers. The two groups of birds are actually not very closely related. Swifts generally forage at higher altitudes than swallows, fly with a rapid flicking motion, and have shorter tails that are not notched at the ends.

Lately the LTA has been doing some works close to my home for the upcoming Downtown Line of the MRT. Part of Bedok Town Park close to the road has been flattened: the trees cut down and the ground dug into. Quite a number of swifts (among other birds) were circling over that area, fairly close to the ground, and I think they might have been hunting down the insects and other critters churned up by the works.

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