Swifts born in Beijing’s old imperial palaces travel 16,000 miles every year to southern Africa and back again without touching ground, and over a lifetime clock up enough miles to get halfway to the moon.
New research suggests that after they leave their nests for the first time, the birds spend up to three years in the air, eating, drinking and mating on the wing.
They come down to earth only to rear their own chicks, having already made a 16,000-mile round trip to their winter homes at least twice. Over the course of their lives, the average Beijing swift will travel nearly 124,000 miles.
“That this tiny bird – that can fit into a human hand – travels to southern Africa and back every year without landing once, is simply awe-inspiring and proof that the natural world is the greatest source of inspiration there is,” said Terry Townshend, founder of Birding Beijing.
The birds have been visitors to the Chinese capital for hundreds of years, nesting in its gatehouses and palace eaves. They are so closely associated with the city that a subspecies carries its old English name, the Peking swift or Apus apus pekinensis.
The number of swifts in Beijing has dropped by over half in the last three decades, however, and conservationists are trying to find out more about the birds’ habits. Their largely airborne lives mean they are difficult to study and although their winter and summer bases were well known, their migration route was largely a mystery before this research.
A group of British, Swedish, Chinese and Belgian scientists and bird lovers worked together in a project that began last year with the trapping of 31 birds at a pavilion in the Summer Palace of China’s former rulers. They were fitted with tiny light-sensitive geo-locator devices, then released to make the annual migration.
So loyal are the birds to their nesting grounds in the city that this year the research team was able to trap more than a third of the swifts in the same pavilion and retrieve data about their flight. It showed that when they started their long migration in July, the birds swept north through Mongolia then down to Iran and across to Africa, heading for Namibia and the Western Cape, where they stayed for the winter.
In February they began retracing the same long route back, flying incredibly fast – the swifts have been recorded hitting speeds of more than 110km/h.
“Swifts have a special place in the hearts of Beijingers and their screaming flights at dusk around many of our major landmarks are one of the most enchanting features of our summer,” said Fu Jianping, president of the China Birdwatching Society.
“For years we have waved them goodbye at the end of July not knowing where they go. Thanks to this project, now we do.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 25 May 2015.