‘Swift (Apus apus, 6 ¾ ins.)’

If you’re a birder, you have at least one field guide. More, probably. How else are you going to identify the blur of brown that’s just disappeared into the hedge?

A field guide description is a lesson in objectivity and observation. What does the bird look like? What distinguishes it from other birds? What features should you look out for? Field guide descriptions deal with phrases such as “prominent white supercilium”, “fine-tipped, distinctively upturned bill” and “powerful undulating flight”.

The Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds is a bit different. A handsome hardback, designed to adorn the low coffee tables of the early 1970s, its cover features a striking portrait of a tawny owl – all feathers, eyes and talons. Inside, there are essays about migration, birdsong, breeding habits, and other aspects of avian life. Fascinating stuff. But the hook for me has always been the single page devoted to each bird. Distribution maps, a single colour illustration, a short pen portrait. Here you get to know the bird – not just its appearance, but its habits, its lifestyle, its character.

I could pick any of them – the perpetually furious great black-backed gull, the craggy golden eagle, the minuscule goldcrest (with which I identified so strongly as a tiny child in a world of giants). But I choose the swift – the answer I most often give to the impossible question ‘what’s your favourite bird?’, and the bird whose arrival each May is the most eagerly anticipated event of the year.

(A nod here to New Zealand artist Ray Ching, responsible for all 230 illustrations. The publishers originally thought the painting of them would take six years. Ching said he could do them in a year. And he did, although it left him a physical wreck.)

From the illustration alone you learn about the bird. You see the long, strong wings and know it is a powerful flier; the short nub of a bill will be good for snapping up insects in flight; the dark plumage – brown all over with a white patch under the chin – suggests that extravagant display isn’t part of its mating ritual.

The bullet-point description of the bird (“long, scythe-shaped wings, forked tail, sexes alike”) is left to the footnotes. The short main text focuses instead on its remarkable life. “They feed on the wing, mate on the wing, sleep on the wing.”

You can never know a swift. Not really. They’re famously unknowable, and that’s part of their appeal. But this page tells you at least a bit of their story.

from The Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds, Drive Publications, 1969

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