Tuesday 5 May 2020

Lack's Swifts (and Ours)

The swifts are back. I saw a couple yesterday, in the middle distance and flying away from me, and then today I spotted another one flying over the ponds, and, shortly after that, two over our road – two of 'our' swifts, back among us, flying low to inspect their old haunts.
  As it happens, the swifts returned just as I'd finished reading David Lack's classic study Swifts in a Tower, now available in a handsome and affordable new edition, published by Unicorn, with a new foreword by Prof. Christopher Perrins and an invaluable additional chapter by David Lack's son Andrew, Swifts in a Tower – Sixty-Two Years On. This updates his father's findings with the latest research – aided by technologies undreamt of in Lack serior's time – which has shed much new light on the life of the swift, though it is a bird that still retains its mystery.
  David Lack's research was truly pioneering: when he began his project of systematically observing swifts in 1946, the fullest account of these birds' habits was still that written by Gilbert White in 1774. Lack's observations were carried out in the tower of Oxford University's Museum of Science, 'a grand but useless ornament', rising 60ft above the rest of the building. Here Lack and his colleagues introduced nesting boxes into ventilation holes in the roof of the tower, set up observation platforms and kept watch on everything that went on in the boxes from the arrival of the first birds to the departure of the last – the comings and goings, fights and flights, nest building, egg laying, the rearing of young and preparations for migration. Lack's findings hugely enlarged understanding of the life of the swift, so Swifts in a Tower is an important scientific work – but, more to the point for the general reader, it is also an elegantly written and very readably book, a far cry from the dull, dry style of the standard monograph. 
  'The story begins on 20 June 1855, when a group of bearded and reverend scientists, a combination now, alas, unknown, joined to sing the Benedicite in the open air on the edge of Oxford, as the foundation stone was laid for a remarkable new building, Oxford University's Museum of Science. As they sang, "O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord" there came, it may be supposed, an answering scream from the circling swifts, for in the top of the new building these birds would find their home in the years to come.' That's the opening paragraph of Chapter Two – and here are the last words of the book, concluding a reflective chapter on The Meaning of Adaptation:
'Many reject the supernatural, and either accept goodness as inexplicable, in which case there is no strong reason for following it, or, if they press the point, suppose man's beliefs and actions wholly determined, his free-will an illusion and truth and goodness of no ultimate significance, which seems in theory to be self-destructive and in practice to lead to evil acts. But this unpleasant consequence gives no good ground for rejecting natural selection, as various humanists have done. Could, then, man have evolved from the beasts by natural selection and yet apprehend truth and goodness through a supernatural gift? On this view there is a great gap in knowledge, but one which appears to involve no greater intellectual difficulty than those implicit, and often overlooked, in the alternative theories of man's nature. This is a grave matter with which to end a bird-book, but the tower where our swifts live was built by those who held that the study of nature should lead us, through a truer understanding, to a fuller worship of the Creator, and the times urgently require us to search out the basis of our lives.'
  As I remarked apropos of Lack's The Life of The Robin, scientists don't write like that any more...


  1. Lovely paragraph quoted there Nige. In sunny Southsea the terns arrives several weeks ago. I saw a house martin 4 days ago and two swifts two days ago. And then, yesterday, a first in the city for me - a whitethroat singing happily and very visibly opposite the D-Day Museum near Southsea Castle> I added that to my list of unusual birds to see in the midst of our densely populated island city which now includes Jays, Goldcrest, Black Redstart, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Fieldfare Sparrowhawk and Blackcap.

  2. That's good going Guy – especially the urban Whitethroat. I guess it's the big story of the past 40 years or so – country birds coming to town.