Every spring, another sound is added to the sounds of prayer at the plaza – the sounds of the swifts
The sounds of the swifts informing us that the winter is over and spring has arrived. The swifts reside here for about three months before they return home to Africa. But have no fear – they’ll be back again next year! The swifts always return to the same spot to build their nests, lay eggs, and raise the next generation. They do all this at the Western Wall, the location of the oldest swift colony in the world.
For thousands of years, the swifts have chosen Jerusalem in general, and the Western Wall in particular. The swifts spend their entire lives in flight. They eat, drink, clean themselves, collect twigs for nests, and even sleep all while flying. They stop their flight for a short time only in order to nest and lay eggs. Their nests must be in walls and high places and therefore, they build them in cracks and grooves in the upper section of the Western Wall. A chick that matures and is ready to fly, drops himself from a height, gathers momentum, and takes flight. The chick needs a wall high enough to fall from, making the Western Wall the highest and best wall in the area. According to scientific research, it holds over eighty swift nests.
The Western Wall Plaza has another advantage for swifts – the worshippers. The large number of people creates hot air that rises that helps the swifts fly. The swifts are urban birds that feel comfortable with humans, are assisted by them, and help them mainly by eating insects in flight.
Swifts are small and, as their name suggests, fast. A swift weighs just a bit more than an Israeli “krembo” and can reach a speed of 220 km/h. Swifts love to gather for social dancing, strengthening ties, and scaring off predators. It is easy to spot them with their green-tinged dark color with white on their throats. When in flight, they resemble a sickle, with their rudimentary wings hidden. They belong to class of birds called “aphodidae,” literally meaning “lacking feet.”
Swifts are social and travel in flocks. Visitors coming to the Western Wall in early morning hours or during twilight are sure to see a mesmerizing sight: swifts gathering for flight together in circles above the heads of the worshippers. They separate and recongregate over and over for a flight dance accompanied by whistles and screeches.
Today, as Jerusalem has grown and new buildings are being built all over the country, the swifts are having greater difficulty finding nesting grounds. Therefore, the Old City of Jerusalem has become even more important. If we walk the alleys of the Old City and look up, we can see nesting boxes with narrow openings at the tops of buildings. These boxes are meant for swifts to nest and continue living harmoniously with human beings.
The swifts’ flight at the Western Wall reminds us of the words of the prophet Jeremiah from about 2,500 years ago: “Even the stork in the heaven knows her seasons, and the turtledoves and the crane and the swift await the time of their coming, but My people do not know the ordinance of the Lord.” The swift always knows to come back home, at the same time and season. The swifts gathered here at the Western Wall remind us of the many who dreamed of coming here and of the joy of returning every year anew, home, to Jerusalem.