• Lisa Tulfer

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset in early May, and I was immediately captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is the book of an obsession. Not content with watching them over his house in Oxford, Foster makes pilgrimages to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, from January to December. In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures. We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift. For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed. They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep. They migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford, spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique. Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks of fledging from their nests under our eaves. They return each summer to the place where they were hatched.

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago, and are also long-lived, with a lifespan of 20+ years. However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts, for example how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate.

Foster also explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer. Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for the mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’. Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book. The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment. If like me, you are excited to see these exuberant little black sickles appear for their brief sojourn in the skies above you each summer, I think you will enjoy this book too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by Little Toller Books, 2021. £15.00. ISBN 9781908213846

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