In Praise of Swifties

Old age has not stolen all of my ornithological delights.
Although arthritic knees preclude long walks in the woods,
And weakening eyes and shaky binoculars hamper my bird-spotting,
I can still recline on my second-floor deck and gaze
Above the giant chimneys of my neighbors’ Victorian homes,
Attending the exquisite ballet of the chimney swifts
That grace the balmy skies of summer.

These small, sooty birds live up to their name,
Zipping along at a mile a minute,
Circling, swirling, dodging in a frenzy of feeding.
My sight jumps as each new acrobat enters the stage. 
I swear I’ve even seen pairs making love while on the wing!
After the young emerge later in the summer,
The sky can get as crowded as a fireworks grand finale,
and I respond with spontaneous “oohs” and “aahs.”
The vista reminds me of scenes of dueling biplanes
In those old movies like Wings and Hell’s Angels.
But in this case, the carnage is limited to mosquitos and their ilk. Swifts like swallows scour the skies, but their tails are mere stubs. And so the bird-people endearingly call them “flying cigars.”

I enjoy the techniques the birds employ
To enter their chosen chimneys at dusk.
Some fly slowly well above the opening, then stall and fall.
Some swoop in from below, arc to just above and drop.
Occasionally they have to dodge an unsuspecting robin
Or pigeon parked on the chimney top.
Once their babies are born, the swifts return more frequently,
Delivering food to open-mouthed hatchlings.
It seems like an Olympic diving or ice-skating event,
And I can imagine a row of judges
Holding up placards rating each performance.

These birds are most useful
As far as we humans are concerned.
They vacuum the skies like little hoovers,
Sucking up mosquitos and other unpleasant things.
As they do so, they emit a twitter of high-pitched chips
I think must be a sonar system akin to what bats employ.
The experts say this isn’t so, but then why do they do it?  
Perhaps they’ve invented the hardware
But they haven’t got the software figured out yet.
Perhaps the bats are mentoring them.

One mystery to me is what all those bugs
Are doing up there in the first place.
Do they court danger while looking for prospective mates?
Do they like to take afternoon siestas
Like the hawks that circle lazily in the sunshine?
More likely they are helplessly impelled
To high altitude by updrafts on sunny summer days,
Like swimmers caught in a riptide and drawn to their doom.

A bigger mystery is what goes on inside those chimneys
After the swifts frantically fall.
I suspect it involves an uncharacteristic awkwardness,
As birds tumble down to the ash heaps at the tops of the dampers
And struggle like cliff-climbers to their nests or favored perches.
To my mind, maybe it is better to leave the mystery intact,
And not detract from their reputation as creatures of joyful grace. 

Poem by Richard Krepeski

Richard Krepski (RICHSKI) is retired from a career as research scientist and educator. He currently resides in the twilight zone between scientific rationalism and poetic lunacy. His writing, including stories, poetry, and essays, often has a spiritual or supernatural theme, and makes extensive use of natural imagery. Recent publications include the poem “Just Like Lao-Tzu’s Blues” in The Closed Eye Open, and stories in Uppagus, Esoterica, and RavensPerch.

Photo credit: Richard Crossley