Swallows and Swifts

Dr. Johnson, in his 59th year, 1768 (per wee Jaimie Boswell):

“He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. ‘That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over the northern countries, is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.”

Note here that Sam. Johnson calls upon eye-witness evidence for the woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) but has nothing to cite for the swallows (Hirundo rustica) except, presumably, common sense. Well, let that be a lesson to us all.

The notion that swallows sleep through the winter goes back quite a way. Aristotle thought they went into holes in the ground. fishingforswallowsSomehow this got translated as meaning underwater. A Swedish woodblock print from 1555 shows fishermen pulling up a net full of swallows from a lake. One of the English language’s earliest naturalists, Gilbert White, who was a contemporary of Johnson’s, believed this.

The pioneering ornithologist Edward Jenner, who revered White, wrote one of the first papers on migration (published posthumously in 1824). He thought it rather improbable that song birds would winter underwater. Indeed, after having drowned a swallow or two, he suggest that it was impossible. He was also one of the first to mark birds, by clipping off claws, showing that swallows returned to the same place year after year. From…somewhere.

Somewhere south of here, that’s for sure. In his case, Africa. In ours, Central and South America.

Well, by now the swallows should have returned to all the Capistranos of the land. Here in NYC, the nesting members of the Hirundinidae are the Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-wing, Bank, and Purple Martin.

I almost never see swallows from my windows on the Harbor Hill Moraine, but most evenings of spring and summer the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are overhead. Their chittering anticipates twilight. I saw my first of the year last weekend both in Upper Manhattan and locally, and heard my first on May Day.

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