On January 29, Bengaluru residents found house swifts clinging to balcony nets and hapless ones fallen on the ground. However, ARRC swung into action and rescued 27 in 24 hours. Unfortunately, some of these aerodynamic marvels died due to mishandling and over-intervention. So, if you want to help them, just stay put, experts advise, even as they comment on the bird’s dwindling numbers
Shaped like torpedoes with long blade-like wings resembling crossed swords when at rest, house swifts, when on the wing, soar through the air and ride the winds, simulating and mirroring creatures straight out of folklore. On January 29, Bengaluru residents across the city woke up to an unusual incident involving these aerodynamic marvels – they found some clinging to balcony nets and many even fallen on the ground.
According to Avian and Reptile Rehabilitation Center (ARRC), calls started flooding in from across Bengaluru. ARRC rescued as many as 27 house swifts within 24 hours. “24 hours, 27 house swifts! We were rushing all over Bengaluru from Electronic City to Whitefield, Begur to Sarjapur Road, Halasuru, JP Nagar, Vidyaranyapura to MG Road! So many swifts rescued in such a day is really concerning. Many disoriented young fledglings were entering people’s bathrooms, balconies and houses,” says Jayanti Kallam, co-founder, ARRC.
What is sad is that many birds ended up being mishandled, leading to difficulties in their release, even though the citizen reporters had their hearts in the right place.
“Swifts are designed with marvellous aerodynamic features and thus are excellent flyers. Having said that, to get into a good flight, their feather condition has to be pristine. The January 29 incident brought forth many concerns when it came to bird rescue cases in the city. The swifts that had entered peoples’ houses were mishandled in most cases. People held them in their hands, leading unwittingly to their feather disturbance by body oils from their palms,” says Jayanti.
While the rescuers set free some birds on the rescue spot itself, some had to be rehabilitated before being released and sadly, a few unlucky ones did not make it at all.
“Swifts are not easy birds to handle. When in rehab, we have to feed them once every hour. We tried to release the birds on the rescue spots itself, but most could not be released as they were weak and exhibited poor flight. Those which were kept least disturbed were released right away. But a few died, due to excessive intervention,” she added.
Swifts are small birds with very short legs, which are not meant for walking. Once on flat ground, it becomes almost impossible for them to take off. All the four toes are directed forwards, used only for clinging to the surfaces. They cannot perch like normal birds and when they fall on the ground, they cannot take off easily. Experts advise that the next time you see a swift hanging outside your house, clinging to a vertical surface, do not disturb it. Do not try to feed it or offer water.
“These birds need to drop from a height to soar upwards and cannot lift themselves from the ground. This is the only way they can be airborne. So if a swift is clinging to a vertical surface, do not disturb it for the night. If the bird has not left by 8 am next morning, you should be a little alarmed. Do not attempt to feed it, as you will do more damage than good. They are very difficult birds to feed without damaging their beaks. Do not offer water too, call your nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre for immediate assistance” advises Jayanti.
According to city bird-watchers, house swifts have witnessed a tremendous decline in past 30 years. Blame it on increasing pollution levels or the city’s huge appetite for modern architecture, house swifts are flying away from Bengaluru.
“From what I know, in many places that they used to breed within the city – Bangalore University, NR Colony, on M G road – they are no longer there. This bird feeds only on aerial insects. However, mosquitoes as per general belief, might not be their food as swifts are high flying and mosquitoes are low flying. Pollution levels are going up. Many insects might not have survived in the dropping air quality and not drift in the right direction, making it hard for swifts to prey. In polluted areas even on the ground, you have lesser insects on plants and trees.Regarding the January 29 incident, we don’t know what led to it, we are still trying to reason out,” says Dr M B Krishna, ornithologist in Bengaluru.
According to Jayanti, a sole incident like that of January 29, cannot be an indicator of any one issue. “It may be the unprecedented rain or the heavy gusts of wind in the last 24 hours before January 29. However, it is difficult to link a one-time event to anything. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for similar events in future. A good sign about having a rescue center is that people have a contact point now. Once they call us, we can collate the data. Maybe we will watch out and observe the swifts next year. Around this time, young ones fledge and that might be another reason behind the incident. We can make guesses, but these are all possibilities. There are several plausible reasons,” she told The Heyvan Times.
Changing landscape: Not good for Swifts
With most old buildings and houses having disappeared already and the remaining on the verge of giving way to modern structures, the common house swift that is known to nest and perch on old swift-friendly architecture, is slowly but steadily disappearing from the urban landscape. According to Prashanth Badarinath, a bird-watcher from Bengaluru, swift-proof buildings and their impact on swift numbers has been a concerning trend in the UK for some time and is being seen now in Bengaluru, too.
“The trend here in Bangalore too has been that of glazed-window buildings without eaves or ledges unlike the old buildings that housed a lot of space for the swifts. While the bird is still found regularly in many places – the Public utility building, the Cauvery Bhavan complex, the IVRI building near Mekhri circle etc., long term observers have had their opinion on the declining numbers of swifts in the city. Moreover, most of these are buildings that still have swifts are old with protruding eaves and corners. Even as late as ten years ago, their declining numbers were noticeable. This may not have been due to the buildings alone but because of what might be happening to the insects high up in the air. But certainly, the balls of swifts were maybe a lot more common earlier and has declined over the years,” says Prashanth.
Experts say the decreasing numbers cannot be attributed to change in building design alone. “We lack comprehensive information about colonies that existed in the past, or their diet of which very little is known. Given that the number of high rises in the city’s outskirts have increased, colonies may have also dispersed,” says Prashanth.
Some Swift Facts
- Swifts are capable of flying for 10 months without once touching land
- They spend 99.5 percent of their migration in the air.
- They mate in the air and consume airborne insects.
- They drink by gliding over smooth water and dipping their beaks in to take sips.
- It’s assumed that they even sleep while in flight.
- Their nest is made of saliva with feathers as filler material.