Naturalist’s Notebook: A Swift Courtship

By John Schmitt
October 15, 2013
Naturalist

Huff ’s Hole, Los Padres National Forest San Luis Obispo County, California, May 1977

A remarkable thing happened as I was walking through the woods in the canyon this morning: three White-throated Swifts came falling from somewhere high above me in a “courtship fall”—a distinctive behavior of this species wherein two (and sometimes up to four) swifts come together in the open sky, then tumble as a clump. I first heard the intense chattering of the swifts somewhere close above the forest canopy. Within seconds something came crashing through the leaves of the dense oak canopy, and I was startled to see a ball of feathers and wings tumbling down.

It was only when this feathered clump was within a couple feet of the ground that the swifts finally broke apart. One swift flew away low, weaving between the trees, but the other two splashed harmlessly onto the deep forest litter within two or three feet of me. One swift immediately took flight with considerable effort, its wings churning up the dry leaves with each wingbeat. But the remaining swift continued to lie prone on the leaves, holding its wings loosely out to the side, looking like a big black-and-white moth.

I stepped forward quickly and stooped to pick it up, but the swift snapped out of its trance and labored to become airborne, thrashing the leaves with its long, stiff wings. Like the two swifts before it, the bird then flew low through the dense woods, looking for a break in the bowering canopy through which it could return to the wide-open sunny sky above.

From late April through May, I observed hundreds of swift courtship falls come tumbling from the sky during my daylong vigils watching Peregrine Falcons, which were nesting nearby on the towering cliffs. Although the swifts usually break away from these tumbling clumps before they get too close to the ground, I have observed them plunge into brush or trees once or twice. But I doubt that I will ever be lucky enough to have another courtship fall end in a crash-landing right at my feet.

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