Saturday, June 13, 2009

Breeding Season

This is breeding season for most birds and it's common to see parents caring for unexperienced young. Some of these young birds, especially amongst the passerines, leave their nests before they can fully fly. Parents, and sometimes older siblings, are never far, but keep well out people's way. Not so the young, who are often "found" and kindly "rescued" by people. So, every year I raise a few of these foundlings.

This is a small swift chick, about three weeks old. It's still partially covered in down and the tail and wings are quite short. Swifts build their nests under the eaves of tall buildings, which in our towns substitute cliffs. When a young bird falls out of a nest, it is impossible to replace it. Swifts take a long time to grow up and leave their nests, longer than other birds. They are extraordinary creatures: highly adapted to live on the wing, once they take off they will only land again to feed their young and, sometimes, to roost at night. So they need to be fully prepared before undertaking this fantastic journey. Common swifts feed, sleep and mate on the wing.

As my chick grew his wings became increasingly long. Swifts are truly flying machines! Their hand wing covers about 80% of the total wing length. The angle at the elbow is less mobile than in other birds and they cannot fold their arms the way other birds can. Perhaps not surprisingly, they belong to the same order as the humming birds, the Apodiformes.

Common swifts can reach a speed of 13o km/h (over 80 miles per hour) and may cover a distance of 560 miles per day during nesting season. The swift's Latin names is Apus apus, meaning “without feet”, because common swifts have very short legs and can only use their feet for clinging to vertical surfaces; they are unable to perch like other birds and if they try they will simply hang. They can’t really take off from the ground, instead they jump off a surface, “dive” for a couple of feet and then fly. My chick grew so restless I could not sketch it anymore. In the last few days before taking off swift chicks vigorously flutter their wings in order to strengthen the muscles. Once they leave their nest they fly South almost immediately, all the way to Africa.

This morning a very different kind of baby bird was brought to me: a Blue Tit.
It's the cutest little thing, and very small as you can see compared to my hand. It weighs but a few grams. Of course, it should be with his parents, but was found in the mouth of a dog...


  1. Beautifully detailed sketches. There is something special about the subtle quality of pencil that has always appealed to me. Love hearing the swifts in flight, too!

  2. Beautiful work and so glad the baby bluetit was found unharmed. I, too, find the fine linework of graphite very pleasing - when done well, there is no need for color or anything else.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Your drawings are amazing!

  4. Beautiful drawings! Such skill in doing all those feather layers, and such teeny feathers around the face. I feel as though I could pick it up and feel the feathery body.
    And yeesh, imagine getting up and flying all the way to Africa on your first couple of days "out of the nest".

  5. I LOVE this post, Barbara! I love learning such amazing things, and your beautiful drawings are equal to the tale...


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