Capable of migrating large distances, the Alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba) is an extraordinary bird, spending much of its life on the wing. Despite being twice as big as other swifts, the Alpine swift is an extremely agile bird and a fast, efficient flier due to a wide wingspan and streamlined body (3)(4)(5)(6). The beak is short and wide, forming a large, gaping mouth that is perfectly adapted for snatching insects whilst in flight. The Alpine swift is largely dark brown in colour, with white patches underneath the beak and on the breast that are separated by a dark brown streak (3)(5)(6)(7). The juvenile is similar to the adult, but the feathers are pale edged (3).
While very little is known about the diet of the Alpine swift, most swifts feed on a variety of insects, with the most common prey items being bees, wasps, flies and beetles. It is this dependency on insects that explains why swifts must migrate, as during the winter insects become scarce at higher latitudes but are in abundance at this same time in the tropics. Whilst migrating, these extraordinary birds have been known to fly up to 1000 miles in three days (3).
Little is known of the Alpine swift’s biology, but, in general, swifts mate in the air, and typically lay between one and six eggs that are then incubatedfor some 17 to 28 days. As swifts are poorly adapted for moving on the ground, the choice of a nest site that is inaccessible to mammalian predators protects both the young and the adults (3). Whilst nesting, swifts can be exposed to sustained periods of cold weather, but a layer of fat that insulates the body and a slow metabolism may help the birds survive these conditions. Even more remarkable, swift chicks can survive long periods of cold weather and starvation by entering a state of torpor(3).
A migratory species, during the Northern Hemisphere summer months the Alpine swift resides in and around the Mediterranean and the northern Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, through to western Asia and India. Before the onset of winter, the Alpine swift migrates southwards to southern and eastern Africa, where there is a seasonal abundance of insects (3).
The Alpine swift typically builds its nest on cliff faces, but will also nest in urban areas, choosing places that are inaccessible to predators, such as roof spaces and underneath bridges (3)(5)(6)(7).
Across its very large range, the Alpine swift may have benefited from human development, as it often chooses tall buildings for nesting over natural sites. However, habitat destruction continues to reduce the amount of foraging habitat available to the species. The increasing use of pesticides in the farming industry also threatens the Alpine swift by reducing both the numbers and the variety of insect prey in its foraging habitat (3).
Davidson, I. and Sinclair, I. (2006) Southern African Birds: A Photographic Guide. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa.
Sinclair, I. and Hockey, P.A.R. (2005) The Larger Illustrated Guide to Birds of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa.
Grewal, B., Harvey, B. and Pfister, O. (2002) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India and the Indian Subcontinent, Including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA.
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