|Flying in Spain|
|Distribution; see text for details|
The Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba) or Apus melba, is a species of swift. The bird is superficially similar to a large Barn Swallow or House Martin. It is, however, completely unrelated to those passerine species, since swifts are in the order Apodiformes. The resemblances between the groups are due to convergent evolution, reflecting similar life styles.
Swifts have very short legs which they use only for clinging to vertical surfaces. The scientific name comes from the Ancient Greek απους, apous, meaning "without feet". They never settle voluntarily on the ground.
Alpine Swifts breed in mountains from southern Europe to the Himalaya. Like Common Swifts, they are strongly migratory, and winter much further south in southern Africa. They wander widely on migration, and are regularly seen in much of southern Europe and Asia. The species seems to have been much more widespread during the last ice age, with a large colony breeding for example in the Late Pleistocene Cave No 16, Bulgaria, around 40,000-18,000 The same situation occurred at Komarowa Cave near Częstochowa, Poland, around 40,000-20,000 years ago.
Alpine Swifts build their nests in colonies in a suitable cliff hole or cave, laying 2-3 eggs. A swift will return to the same site year after year, rebuilding its nest when necessary. These birds pair for life. Young swifts in the nest can drop their body temperature and become torpid if bad weather prevents their parents from catching insects nearby.
Alpine Swifts spend most of their lives in the air, living on the insects they catch in their beaks. They drink on the wing, but roost on vertical cliffs or walls. A study published in 2013 showed Alpine Swifts can spend over six months flying without having to land. All vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be performed while on air.
Alpine Swifts are readily distinguished from the Common Swifts by their larger size and their white belly and throat. The Alpine Swift is around twice as big as most other swifts in its range. It is 20 to 23 cm (7.9 to 9.1 in) long, with a wingspan of 57 cm (22 in) and weighed around 100 g (3.5 oz). The Alpine swift is largely dark brown in colour, with white patches underneath the beak and on the breast that are separated by a dark brown streak. The juvenile is similar to the adult, but the feathers are pale edged. In comparison, the Common Swift has a wingspan of around 42 cm (17 in). A dark neck band separates the white throat from the white belly. They have a short forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent or a boomerang but may (as in the image) be held stretched straight out. The flight is slower and more powerful than that of their smaller relative.
The call is a drawn-out twittering.
In 2011, Felix Liechti and his colleagues at the Swiss Ornithological Institute attached electronic tags that log movement to six alpine swifts and it was discovered that the birds could stay in the air for more than 200 days straight.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Tachymarptis melba". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Boev, Z. 1998. A range fluctuation of Alpine swift (Apus melba (L., 1758)) (Apodidae - Aves) in Nothern Balkan Peninsula in the Riss-Wurm interglacial. - Biogeographia, Nuova Serie, Siena, 19 - 1997: 213-218.
- Tomek, Teresa & Bocheński, Zygmunt (2005): "fWeichselian and Holocene bird remains from Komarowa Cave, Central Poland". Acta zoologica cracoviensia 48A(1-2): 43-65.
- Felix Liechti et al. "First evidence of a 200-day non-stop flight in a bird"
- BTO Birdfacts - Alpine swift
- Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi by Stevenson & Fanshawe. Elsevier Science (2001), ISBN 978-0856610790
- This Bird Can Stay in Flight for Six Months Straight
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