~taxonomy of swiftlets~

June 8th, 2008


I’d like to tell you about swifts, a magical bird who turns the European twilight skies into vast aviaries. Some swift facts:

1. Like bats, cave-dwelling swifts navigate by echolocation. They call out and listen for their own echoed answer to find their way in total darkness.

2. Many species glue their nests together with saliva. The Chinese make a very fancy gelatinous Bird’s Nest Soup {燕窝} from their spit. Swifts however prefer to eat aerial plankton: insects and spiders light enough to be carried quite high by air currents.

3. They spend all of the first two to three years of their life (and most of the twenty-some odd years following) in constant flight; they sleep while flying. So they are basically homeless (especially as people keep climbing rickety ladders to steal their nests), but they don’t seem to mind.

I would miss this well-endowed fountain man with his bright two-toned stockings.

So Ali was offered an extension to his contract and now begins The Great Debate™: return to the states and build a new nest, likely in upstate NY, possibly out of saliva–or stay another year in Suisse (October 2009) and endure isolation from friends and family, and life in a studio apartment, so that we can continue to build this other mysterious life which also sometimes feels like sleep-flight?

I am all over the map (as it were) on this one. I’m of course over the moon at the prospect of another year to write, who wouldn’t be? Turns out novels take a while to bake. I also love the idea of more travel, and more new experiences, even the hard ones. The kind of life we have here is exactly what life is about in my mind: not trouble-free, just more interesting trouble! Case in point? The Great Debate™.

To a great degree this is a question of Home, figuratively and metaphorically. We’ve been casting about, trying to decide where to nest, and how, (and on bad days, with whom), for eons now.

I would miss accordion cheese-shop man, who may also be well-endowed, who knows?

This weekend we distracted ourselves from this topic with a train trip to Lausanne.
We had a paddle boat adventure on Lac Léman/Lac de Genève where I chased off some Suisse teen hoodlums who were making circles (and giant waves) around us in their speedboat (probably it was my terrible French that did the trick). The sky was dark and it was spooky and gorgeous.

I would miss what living by water does to the light.
I would miss turning my head one way and seeing Switzerland and the other to see France.



I love life in a quiet place, I love that it is the exception when things get testosterone-fueled (as they are all this month, with 10,000 fans flooding our town for Euro2008! Football! Er, soccer! Go Suisse!).


People for the most part seem content, and this really makes a difference in quality of life for a sensitive crab like myself. I even love the autonomy–the stranger in a strange land feeling–when it doesn’t feel too lonely.

And the plankton is out of this world! The farmer’s market!–our mushroom farmer, our wine maker, our grandma who makes bitter orange preserves. These I would miss so much.

I would miss the many birds of Neuchatel– swifts especially, but also crows kvetching in our courtyard trees, and the sparrows who know my porch is THE place for breakfast, and call to wake me if I don’t come out early enough. Last week we saw a parade of swan ducklings. (Ed. that is, cygnets, thanks Terry! Thinking of Ugly ‘Duckling’ perhaps…)

I would miss my one-legged pigeon friend. Well, she has two, but generally stands on one (the other is injured, but still works). She keeps me company (and under careful watch) all afternoon as I type on the couch. If I hold very still she sometimes walks right into my kitchen (okay, it’s not far, but still).

Sometimes she does a Kabuki move of fanning her wings like Sally Rand and tilts her head and observes me with an orange eye, then settles down for a nap in the sun. No sleep-flight for her.


My history with pigeons began with my grandpa Boone’s homing pigeons that he raises in his backyard in Los Angeles. He bred a new color of Mookie (red) and earned blue ribbons at the county fairs with them. When I was a kid he let me feed them and collect the eggs from their nests, which felt something like robbery.

I loved being inside his hand-built bird houses, a little scary for all the nervous cooing and wings brushing your cheek and who the heck are you looks. With their weathered wood and chicken wire, and elaborate self-watering systems, they are practical and poetic, like Boone. (In fact, here is a poem written by my grandpa, about cockfighters.)


He let me film in his birdhouses when I was making my first movie, Wanderlust. He also let me release a bird into the sky, who eventually returned to perch on the high telephone wires that crisscross over his yard.

How do they find their way home?

Most people agree upon some form of “map and compass” sense. The compass is the sun. The map is more debated–theories range from detection of the Earth’s magnetic field, to sniffing their way using “the spatial distribution of atmospheric odors.” (otherwise known as follow your nose.)


Today my pigeon friend comes and goes all afternoon, landing like a tiny, spluttering helicopter on my terrace wall. The swifts swoop dramatically to catch the accidentally flying spiders. In both cases their lives seem a matter of fulfilled destiny: pigeons were built for nesting, swifts were built for flight.

As for a couple of wingless Alp-lovers, stay tuned…

One Response to “~taxonomy of swiftlets~”

  1. kim says:

    p/s getting the led out….

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