Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!