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Watching the development of weight

Raising a juvenescent swift, the growing nurslings weight needs to be measured daily. Use a dietary, a letter or a precision set of scales to do this.


After eclosion a common swift weighs 2-3 grams and it scores a weight of 45-55 grams during its period of growth (which takes 40-45 days), even short-term peaks of more than 60 grams are known. At the end of this period weight decreases a few grams. The young swifts reject their food more and more often, "flatten" and transform adipose to muscle mass. Instinctively they determine their ideal weight from the ratio of wing spread to body mass with copious "pushups". So don't become flustered or take "rigid" action, if the almost fully fledged young swift suddenly does not want to eat as much as it used to do! The "flattening" makes sense: a heavyweight of 48-50 grams would get into serious trouble while trying to start up in the air.


Weight development in young swifts from a natural brood (Weitnauer 1980) and a nestling hand-raised in the clinic.


According to latest studies young common swifts show this behaviour also when with their natural parents. It is not the adult birds reducing the feeding of their well-fed offspring at the end of the nesting time, as believed so far, but they reject their parental feeding care, in turn prompting the adults to take food to the nest less often. The fledged young swifts do not leave their nesting cave until they have reached the correct ratio between wing spread and body mass. This behaviour can only be observed under best weather conditions and sufficient food supply of course!


At the day of its release a human-nurtured swift should not weigh less than 40 grams though, so it leaves with sufficient reserves. It is very important that you take care of a continuos development of weight and regularly check the swift's state of nutrition by touching its breast bone. 


Note: There are extremely small as well as extremely large common swifts. Hence all weight guidelines are just relative. A diminutive tiny little swift may be well nurtured at 35 grams and show a well-rounded chest, while a very large bird of the same weight would be close to starvation, depending on infusions.


Extreme size differences in adult swifts: at rear, wing length 160 mm; in front 185 mm (from wing shoulder to wing tip) © C. Haupt

At what time is the young common swift fully fledged ?


Besides its weight certain characteristics indicate very precisely that a young swift is ready to fly out:

-    It behaves very uneasy and intensely trains its flight musculature. Especially in the evening hours it gets into a fever of activity.
-    It retches out its food more and more often and finally denies ingestion at all. Intensive „pushup“ help it to determine its own ideal flight weight from the relation between its body weight and the length of its wings.
-    It feverishly cleans itself and repeatedly pulls the long pinions through its beak.
-    The most reliable property is represented by the plumage: Look at the bottom sides of the wings and blow the covering feathers aside. You will clearly recognize those grey-white feather reels that the pinions grow out from, they look like tiny tubes. The feathers are completely developed, when none of these reels can be seen anymore.


As long as the quills of the flight feathers can still be seen, this young swift is not airworthy. © I. Polaschek
Not yet fledged. The quills are clearly visible. © E. Brendel
No quills visible any more - this young swift is ready to fly. © E. Brendel

If your swift shows this behaviour and has a full-grown plumage it is ready to leave its nursery. In free nature it would sit at the entrance now for hours, for days, look outside, finally protruding its head more frequently and suddenly dare to jump into nought. Feral swifts mostly do this right after sunset.
At this point we should, however, not follow nature and time the start of our wards in daylight. For it is just the inexperienced swift friend who may choose the wrong time, or the bird may for some reason not yet be ready to fly, or not in a position to do so, perhaps because of some unseen disability, injury or other handicap. If it then comes to a crash landing, you can at least find the downed bird in daylight rather than in the twilight.
For the same reason, you should not release a bird over high vegetation, such as near a corn field or the like, and it is always advisable to post two or three assistants at stations with a good view, close to the maiden flight of the bird, to be able to keep an eye on him.

How do you release the bird?


Unfortunately, misinformation still circulates, namely that you should throw a swift high into the air so he can fly. Never! So often throwing unfledged swifts, who were injured, weak or in shock, has had dire consequences! It may happen that young swifts are so restless that they jump out of the hand out of excitement and then fall on their faces, and then their human friends may on the second attempt give them a little push. Such tests are to be stopped immediately if a bird crash lands even on the second, or perhaps third try, because then there is a strong suspicion of a previously unrecognized problem (perhaps broken bone or a torn tendon), which must be confirmed with x-rays.

Normally adult as well as juvenile swifts fly away by descending from an elevated location and then immediately climb high into the air. Contrary to popular belief, however, any adult, healthy and strong swift can take off from the ground, provided they have a flat, clear "runway" of 2-3 m length in front of them.


Ready for take-off. © C. Haupt

What do I have to watch out for at the start of my “foster child”?

Choose a clear area, for example a low-traffic street with good visibility or a small playground. Large open areas like fields and meadows are not necessarily advisable, since the take-off of the swifts is then very vulnerable and isolated and they can easily end up as victims of a predator (such as a hawk or falcon). In a narrow street, however, the swift has cover from the rows of houses, as in its departure from its natural nest.

Watch out for hawks! While the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) are rare, kestrels are frequent and proliferate, especially in urban residential areas, and increasingly hunt birds, and they can prepare a bloody end to an initially uncertain maiden flight of a young swift.
If a hawk is sitting near or circling the launch site, you must postpone the take-off of your foster child, or look for another place. If however a bird of prey attacks "out of the blue," without you having seen him before, the hunter can sometimes be irritated or driven off by shouting and hand-clapping. Only when the swift has got past the first few hundred meters, and gained altitude and safety, does an attacking falcon have little chance of beating the agile high-performance aerial acrobat.

Stand on the “runway” which you have chosen, against the wind, so that your foster child has just enough lift for takeoff. Place the swift in the palm of your hand, and lift him high above your head - and have patience! Remember what a dramatic event in his life awaits him now! Don’t hassle or push him if he hesitates for a while. If he should crawl backwards, frightened, or start shivering, stop and try again a day or two later - because he is simply not ready to leave "Hotel Mama”.

Mostly, however, a young swift will not keep you waiting long. Curious and excited, he will look around fearfully, with his own inner terrors, before the big jump and his overwhelming urge to fly. It is best if in the sky above him other swifts are circling and screaming: This only entices him even more. And suddenly he will start to shake violently, arch his back to deposit his droppings - and suddenly jump from your hand ...

A young swift chooses the right moment to jump from a raised hand © P. Hartmann
The big moment. His first wing beats in freedom – Wings over the world! © P. Hartmann

It's a breathtaking, heart-stopping moment, to experience how a young bird flies low, a bit unsure, but then climbs with strong wing beats, and with amazing speed gains altitude, and immediately in a swirling flight starts catching insects, as if he had done nothing else all his life. And one is always amazed at how quickly a group of other swifts surround the new guy to involve him in their crazy aerobatics. Sometimes they even seem to harass him to prove that he is a "real" Swift!

Complications on take-off

Of course, often a “foster child” also ensures that its first flight is for you a nerve-wracking suspense story, for example by unexpectedly swinging away from the free path ahead of him, straight between houses or trees, and heads straight towards some obstacle. Usually this most agile flight artist of all birds manages to turn in time and climb back into the air, but you will not always be completely certain. Anyone who has raised and released swifts also knows the anxious hours and days of searching in an impenetrable thicket, densely planted gardens and endless fields! And it's hard to believe how quickly you can lose sight of a bird against a dark background, such as trees.

And, of course - it can go wrong. Swifts taking off for the first time have, for not obvious reasons, collided with house walls, power lines, cars or flown into glass, been hit by hawks, or - worst of all! - have fallen somewhere and never been found again. This is probably the most terrible end to a long period of care of a swift.

Will a hand raised swift survive in liberty?

Yes, he will! Even young swifts raised by their own parents, on first leaving the nest, have to rely on their own resources and have no more contact with their father and mother. They can fly, hunt, know the way to their winter quarters, and know instinctively what to be careful of, and how to behave. A learning period, like that of song birds, is not necessary, and so hand raised swifts do not need to be accustomed to the wild, in contrast with some other birds, such as hand raised tits and blackbirds.

So as your swift climbs upwards into the air, to its natural destiny, you can confidently leave him to himself and do not need to worry about his welfare. Everything he needs to survive is innate to him, and he will now stay for two or three almost uninterrupted years in the air. Next year, if nothing happens to him, he will return to the place from which he flew for the first time, perhaps to look for a nest site.

Late release? Shipping? Overwintering?
It often happens - especially for patients coming from late broods - that other swifts have already migrated from the area where you are. If your foster child is fledged in September or even later, you can still let him fly safely, but you must choose a warm, sunny day. It is highly advisable to hear the weather reports for Germany (if releasing in Germany), France, Spain and the Alps region so you do not send the unsuspecting swifts to a southern winter storm. Clearly, for other countries, you should check the weather forecasts for the route they will follow.

It is well known that the Western European populations of swifts from Southern Germany, France, Spain and Gibraltar move to Africa, but there is also a south-easterly migration route that leads over the Alps. This route to their winter quarters is innate to young swifts, and as sporadic migrating swifts from northern latitudes have been observed occasionally in October and November, it may well be that a migrating swift finds company. It is not advisable to release young swifts later than the first or second week of October or even in late September if there is general and persistent bad weather, i.e. cold, rainy, and stormy weather. Then you have to look for a way to transport the latecomer to the south in better weather: by car, train or plane!

To keep a healthy, flight-capable swift for the winter, just because you think there is no alternative, is probably a death sentence for him. His flight muscles atrophy, he can become stunted physically and mentally ill, alone in his prison, without his own kind. Also, the anatomy of an animal that has been created for non-stop flight is not adapted to long term resting or hanging about in a box. Plumage damage, “bedsores”, respiratory problems and many other problems can be the consequences, not least an increasing susceptibility to infection with bacteria and fungi, as the immune system of a captive swift rapidly declines.

For late patients in Germany, please contact the DGfM if necessary. The clinic is equipped for long-term patients, and has much experience in dealing with them, and appropriate veterinary care is guaranteed. Also in autumn and winter there are arrangements for regular shipping to the south of Swifts who have missed the connection, so that they can take off in sunshine and freedom.




If there is no more hope of saving...

The swift is a creature of the sky, and whoever has observed these birds, the free, wild flight of adult birds and the evident desire of young swifts for the vastness of the sky, knows that there can be no other life for them. Keeping a swift prisoner would be - not to mention the fact that it is strictly forbidden by Nature Conservation laws and punished accordingly - irresponsible cruelty to animals. It is necessary to consider then, because it always comes up, what to do about a swift that is not airworthy, and cannot be cured. In such cases, especially for animal lovers have who have invested a lot of effort and commitment in such a bird, and often asked the question whether the otherwise healthy animals could not at least live in captivity.

The answer must be: NO !

Recall the way of life of swifts. It would be unspeakably cruel to deny this permanent flyer the immense freedom of the skies and flight with his own species. Such an existence, imprisoned and force fed, is for a swift worse than death, and if you have observed the behavior of your foster child, you will know why.

Don’t be swayed by a mistaken, sentimental “love of animals”, which in truth is just a refusal to part with a possession and is pure selfishness! For the bird feels nothing of the compassion you feel for him, and knows only that he must suffer. And so a swift, whether young or old, that can no longer live his life in freedom as is appropriate to his species, should be anesthetized by a veterinarian and then put down painlessly. In such a case, this is the greatest mercy possible and the only thing you can still do for your feathered friend, because - living is not always the best choice. Not when there is no life left for this very special bird. Of course, it is not easy - especially if you have devoted long and painstaking care to an animal, and taken it into your heart. But precisely for this reason:

In this decision, do not think of yourself, but of "your" swift, and don’t expect him to undergo the torture of a lonely solitary confinement!


Only a pale shadow of itself: seriously ill, apathetic, dying swifts after two years imprisonment and solitary confinement, mentally finished, beyond saving ... © Vogelklinik Gießen

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We accept only swifts! Questions regarding other bird species will not be answered!
Information regarding other bird species: http://www.wildvogelhilfe.org/
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