Wings of Desire

May and June - a seasonal banquet of wildlife!

The sumptuous months of May and June provide a seasonal banquet of wildlife that is quite unlike any other time of year. Everywhere you look there is a frenzy of feeding and breeding, fighting and flowering in the woods and waterways, groves and gardens, in the meadows and moorlands. It’s time to feast from nature's bountiful table, whether its listening to hedgehogs mating on a still evening, or indulging in the bonanza of wild flowers, frothing over with fizzy joie-de-vivre.

All birds at some point during May will probably be sitting on eggs. And there are a few peculiarities to take note of in this frantic breeding soap opera that unfolds in the gardens, fields and woods of Britain at this time of year.

Sex scandals, robbery, evictions, wife-swapping and infanticide!

Take swallows, for example, perhaps the very worst offenders when it comes to playing dirty. Although they make an initial formal pairing with another, as soon as their partner's back is turned they will copulate with many of their neighbours too. This promiscuity is not so unusual among birds, but in the swallow's case, it gets worse. If a male swallow remains unpaired too long, he will turn stalker, closely observing the progress of a number of nests, timing his sinister intervention just after the eggs have hatched. Then he'll dash in when they are 'home alone' to dump the poor innocents out of the nest and to certain death. Instead of persecuting the murderer, however, and berating him for the cold-blooded murder of her young, the female swallow will divorce her partner and then mate with him in a desperate bid to raise a successful brood, despite the fact that he has 'blood on his beak'.
Now just before you banish these birds from your list of favourites, there is another side to their behaviour which will help to balance out the opinion polls. Whilst most birds are deeply competitive for territory, food or breeding opportunities at this time of year, the swallow does something else quite unusual. The first brood of the early summer will often help their parents in feeding the second brood, like responsible teenagers who are aware they have to help out to make ends meet.

This time of year sees the completed mobilisation of the bird kingdom in the UK, boosting bird numbers to their peak, with the last of the migrants arriving in May, including the swallows, martins and the exotic swifts. If you live in town, you'll also appreciate these vibrant visitors from Africa turning up on your doorstep to put on quite a street party to get you in the mood for summer.

The Red Arrows of the Birds

Squadrons of swifts patrol many of our urban streets with their noisy, acrobatic displays, like a military airshow coming to town. Never mind the Red Arrows, watching them wheel and dive is to witness an aerial masterclass. Consider their other Olympian attributes too. They are the ultimate long-distance endurance athletes - on average the swift flies 500 miles a day, clocking up millions of miles over an average lifespan!
The mystery of where they go to sleep though has only relatively recently started to become clearer. It was a widely believed, for example, that swifts have no feet and are unable to land on the ground. Indeed their Latin name apus means 'footless'. We know now this is not true. Though they rarely need to set foot upon terra firma, the younger birds are able to roost upon the wing, possibly airborne for their first few years until mature enough to breed.
You may have slept in the air too, of course, on one of those dreadful long-haul flights, but imagine what it would feel like to circle for hours at high altitude in the cold and the dark ... imagine what dreams you might have sleeping on the wing! Enjoy them while you can, however, they'll stay only until early August.

Ted Hughes's poem 'Swift' captures the essence of these amazing birds....

And here they are, and here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror.
Frog-gapers, speedway goggles, international mobsters,
a bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched,
veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again.
Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into the blue - Not ours anymore.

Make sure you don't miss out on the Spring feast of sights and sounds piled high upon Britain's nature table - such a tonic for the spirit after the long winter.
To that end, you are welcome to dine at the WildWise table on one of our many bushcraft and wildlife-rich events …

Chris Salisbury
Artistic Director, Westcountry Storytelling Festival www.weststoryfest.co.uk
Professional Storyteller aka 'Spindle Wayfarer'
Director, WildWise Events Ltd www.wildwise.co.uk