The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down

The Mysterious(məˈstirēəs) Life of Birds Who Never Come Down

Swifts spend all their time in the sky. What can their journeys(ˈjərnē) tell us about the future?

By Helen Macdonald

I found a dead common swift once, a husk(həsk) of a bird under a bridge over the River Thames(temz), where sunlight from the water cast bright scribbles(ˈskribəl) on the arches(ˈärCHəz) above. I picked it up, held it in my palm(pä(l)m), saw the dust in its feathers(ˈfeT͟Hər), its wings crossed like dull(dəl) blades(blād), its eyes tightly closed, and realized(ˈrē(ə)ˌlīz) that I didn’t know what to do. This was a surprise. Encouraged by books, I’d always been the type of Gothic(ˈɡäTHik) amateur(ˈamədər, ˈaməˌtər, ˈaməCHər) naturalist(ˈnaCH(ə)rələst) who preserved interesting bits of the dead. I cleaned and polished(ˈpäliSHt) fox skulls(skəl); disarticulated(ˌdisärˈtikyəlāt), dried and kept the wings of roadkill birds. But I knew, looking at the swift, that I could not do anything like that to it. The bird was suffused(səˈfyo͞oz) with a kind of seriousness(ˈsirēəsnəs) very akin(əˈkin) to holiness(ˈhōlēnəs). I didn’t want to leave it there, so I took it home, swaddled(ˈswädl) it in a towel(ˈtou(ə)l) and tucked(tək) it in the freezer. It was in early May the next year, as soon as I saw the first returning swifts flowing down from the clouds, that I knew what I had to do. I went to the freezer, took out the swift and buried(ˈberēd) it in the garden one hand’s-width(widTH) deep in earth newly warmed by the sun.

Swifts are magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding. Once they were called the “Devil’s(ˈdevəl) bird,” perhaps because those screaming flocks of black crosses around churches(CHərCH) seemed pulled from darkness, not light. But to me, they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible(ˌənənˈteləjəb(ə)l), which makes them more akin to angels. Unlike all other birds I knew as a child, they never descended(dəˈsend) to the ground.