Now that autumn has arrived (this very night full of the cool breezes and beads of soft rain that wash away the heat and bear away the humidity), I am posting a piece that I attempted to shop around to various local journals and magazines when the spring equinox was upon us here in upstate New York. It is entitled “The Swifts of Spring” and was finished in late May of this year:
The night sky begins to pale toward morning. There is a bright chatter that rises up before the sun. It wakes you in the still yellowy night, lit only by a few streetlights. In the alley below, an exhausted and tearful weeping sounds over a deep but impotent protest. It’s the playing out of a lover’s quarrel, the current theme set to birdsong above the village streets an hour before dawn. Their voices soon fade away as night diminishes and I roll back over into the short dream before coffee.
I’m no birdwatcher but as I acquaint myself with my new home of Catskill, I watch on Main Street the arcs and lines of birds with the daily trails made by my fellow residents below going into Catskill Grocery & News for coffee, smokes and scratch-its; strolling between the Greene County courthouse and the county offices; working out to Zumba music from the open door of the Community Center; heading into the Community Theater for the latest Captain America film or out of Kirwan’s Game Store for fresh air. Weekenders from the city also trounce the sidewalks, and a part of me feels as if my partner and I’s move is just as transitory as their visit. However, we both know this is now home and these residents, our community.
From creekside to the tombstones at the top of the hill, across the variously stormy and sunny skies, the village now has a rarer visitor. Since the first two weeks of May, twenty or more migratory Chimney swifts have been sighted. Swifts are exceptional creatures and commit their energy to an almost totally airborne life. They eat, mate, and do everything but sleep in the air, having no ability to perch like most common birds. In fact, they are in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, meaning “footless” in Greek. Since leaving their wintering homes in South America, their high-pitched squeaks and chirps have been lilting overhead.
How much envy has greened our race for ages while admiring the flight of birds. Whereas a bird would use a crease in the ripple of a wind to bank or roll its body further along its course of flight, we clumsily trip on the edge of a slightly upturned sidewalk block. Some of us drag our feet while walking – I myself have an odd ‘duck-footed’ gait that reveals itself slowly in the wearing down of the backside of my heels. We feel the rule of gravity’s kingdom on our shoulders and try our best to straighten the somewhat crooked sway of our travelings. It’s no wonder that birds were imitated for a good many centuries by would-be aviators before we had to figure out our own means of catching the air.
(As an interlude, I scribbled the following poem while musing on this phenomenal influence:
You have to admire
The stapled wings of foolish inventors
As much as the quilled designs
Of Leonardo –
Both inspired by the grace of birds
As much as – or more than,
The mechanics of flight
It’s now the breeding season. Chimney swifts make nests of twigs which are glued together using their own saliva, holding their clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. In the early morning the other birds of this village, the house sparrows, starlings, and purple finches, keep their nests in the slightly open cracks between cornice and gutter or among the now greening vines along the side of the old Oren’s building. The making of nests is in the nature of all birds, from the complexity of the bower to the simplicity of the penguin. For the benefit of the swifts, Catskill features many chimneys from the 19th century that no longer hold flames. It seems fitting with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s new studio and exhibit on the painter’s architectural designs that the swifts are making new use of our old brick. For local historians, this could be a point of pride in a town once known for its industrious brickyards.
I’m uncertain how long the swifts will be flying among us this spring. A brief bit of research shows that incubation and nesting takes a combined 40 days. And as much as I can glean from eBird.org, no sightings of Chimney swifts have been recorded in Catskill in the last decade. It makes one wonder at their being here, soot-dusted and gulping down great amounts of insects each day, to return at sunset to a few chimneys hanging in the air. If you live in this village or are visiting in the next few weeks, observe their grace while you can.
I hope more than a few of us took in the sight of their arching flights. There was ample time and number, as by the close of August more than 40 were in the undulating groups of parents and their brood before taking flight from Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties and number of other towns and villages in the area. Soon after they left, a legion of spiders soon filled the insect-eating vacuum left by the swifts and populated the streetlight, windows and facade of my building along Main St. to a creepy extant.