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Birds Thou Never Wert
George Plimpton
December 28, 1981
Unsuccessful in their search for an extremely rare woodpecker, three avid bird watchers construct the ultimate birds, one just this side of paradise and the other straight from the junkyard
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December 28, 1981

Birds Thou Never Wert

Unsuccessful in their search for an extremely rare woodpecker, three avid bird watchers construct the ultimate birds, one just this side of paradise and the other straight from the junkyard

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"I don't think so," Victor said. "But the point is that the male superb song swifts, perhaps a dozen of them, should perform an aerial lek, thousands of feet up, trying to impress a female—all kinds of extravagant figure eights and loops and power dives."

"Do birds do that sort of thing?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," Rowlett said. "Hawks. Eagles. Ravens do barrel rolls to impress the female. Hummingbirds."

"Of course, they have to land to actually mate, don't they?" I asked.

"Not the swift family," Victor said. "They spend really an enormous part of their lives on the wing. In fact, if a swift happened to land on the ground, he'd be so ill-adapted to it that he probably couldn't get into the air again. He does everything—bathes, eats, probably even sleeps and, certainly, mates in flight."

"Well, ahem," I asked, "how do they manage the mating?"

"It isn't a laborious matter," Victor said. "I mean, birds do it in just a second or so. In the swifts' case, it's hardly ever been observed—because it happens so high up and at such velocity. Presumably, for just an instant, the birds touch, face on, vent to vent, in what could be described as an aerial cloacal kiss—very fleeting, but enough."

"The missionary position," Rowlett added.

"Oh," I said. "It seems to me," I went on, "that the superb song swift might be distinctive in that perhaps the species devotes a bit more time to it than just a couple of seconds. I mean, couldn't the two of them tumble together a couple of miles down through the air?"

"I don't see anything wrong with that," Rowlett said.

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