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BirdsSpecies Animal

Tachymarptis melba

Tachymarptis melba

The Alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba Linnaeus, 1758) is a bird belonging to the Apodidae family.

Systematic –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Animalia,
Phylum Chordata,
Aves class,
Subclass Neornithes,
Superorder Neognathae,
Order Apodiformes,
Family Apodidae,
Subfamily Apodinae,
Genus Tachymarptis,
Species T. melba.
The terms are synonymous:
– Apus melba (Linnaeus, 1758);
– Cypselus alpinus;
– Hirundo melba Linnaeus, 1758.
Within this species the following subspecies are recognised:
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. africanus (Temminck, 1815): ranges from Ethiopia to South Africa and north-western Angola;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. archeri (Hartert, 1928): occupies northern Somalia, southwestern Arabia, reaching Israel and Jordan;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. bakeri (Hartert, 1928): limited to Sri Lanka.
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. dorabtatai (Abdulali, 1965): occupies western India;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. marjoriae (Bradfield, 1935): occupies Namibia and southwestern South Africa;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. maximus (Ogilvie-Grant, 1907): located in the mountains (northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda);
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. melba: extends from southern Europe and Turkey to northwestern Iran;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. nubifugus (Koelz, 1954): reproduces only in the Himalayas;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. tuneti (Tschudi, 1904): found from Morocco to the Middle East reaching western Pakistan;
– Tachymarptis melba subsp. willsi (Hartert, 1896): found in Madagascar.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
The Tachymarptis melba is a bird that lives in Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
In Italy it nests in urban centers at fairly high altitudes or in cracks in rock walls. It can be observed from early spring to late summer. In Italy it nests from sea level up to over 2000 meters above sea level. It is often found in interspecific aggregations with Apus pallidus Shelley, 1870, and in small colonies, rarely exceeding 10 pairs.
It is a long-distance migrant species, wintering in Southern Africa.
Their breeding habitat is in the mountains from southern Europe to the Himalayas. The southern European population winters further south, in southern Africa. Like most swifts, they never voluntarily settle on the ground, spending most of their lives in the air feeding on the insects they catch with their beaks.
It is a polytypic species found year-round in eastern and southern Africa, Madagascar, western peninsular India and Sri Lanka, with wider non-breeding distributions in western, eastern and southern Africa, parts of the border western of the Arabian Peninsula and breeding throughout southern Europe, west through Turkey, north through the Caucasus and along the eastern Black Sea coast to the Crimean Peninsula and into Central Asia as far as Turkestan and south along the Iran and Afghanistan to Balochistan in western Pakistan and further east along the Himalayas.
There are also scattered populations in northwestern Africa with an isolated population in northern Libya.

Description –
The Tachymarptis melba is a bird with a length from beak to tail of between 20 and 23 cm, a wingspan of 57 cm and a weight of approximately 100 g, with males and females being indistinguishable in the wild.
It clearly differs from the rest of the swifts by its large size, white belly and chest. Also, like most swifts, they are dark brown throughout the rest of their bodies except for their chin, which is also white.
Between the white of the chin and the white of the belly there is a narrow dark stripe.
Its wings are very long and in flight take the shape of a crescent or crossbow.
Its tail is small, forked and narrow.
It has very short legs that are used to cling to vertical surfaces.
Juveniles are similar to adults but have light feather edges.
Its flight is slower and more powerful than that of other swifts and its call in flight is a prolonged chirp.

Biology –
Tachymarptis melba breeds in mountains from southern Europe to the Himalayas. It is a highly migratory bird and winters much further south, in southern Africa. It wanders widely during migration and is regularly spotted across much of southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Originally it was linked to rock walls and caves for nesting (and occasionally to holes in trees), it then conquered buildings (especially large buildings relatively isolated from others), undergoing range expansion and numerical increase.
The reproduction of these birds usually follows the following scheme.
During the winter season, they migrate to tropical Africa to escape adverse weather conditions.
In the spring, they return to their nesting places, which are often cliffs or rock faces.
Pairs select a suitable nesting site, usually on vertical rock faces or under ledges.
The pair works together to build the nest, which is made mostly of mud and may be cup-shaped.
After building the nest, the female generally lays 2 to 4 eggs.
The female and male take turns incubating the eggs. The incubation period lasts about two weeks.
Once hatched, the parents take care of the young, feeding them and protecting them in the nest.
After a period of growth, the young begin to learn to fly and hunt with the assistance of their parents.
In late summer or early autumn, they migrate again to areas of tropical Africa, where they will spend the winter.
During the reproductive cycle they form pair bonds and are monogamous.
Furthermore, these apodiforms return to the same sites year after year, rebuilding their nests when necessary and mating for life. Young swifts in the nest may lower their body temperatures and become sluggish if bad weather prevents their parents from catching nearby insects. They have adapted well to urban conditions, often nesting in old buildings in Mediterranean cities, where large, low-flying flocks are a familiar feature in summer.

Ecological Role –
The name of the genus derives from the Ancient Greek takhus, “swift”, and marptis, “seizing”. The specific name melba derives from ‘melano-alba’ or ‘mel-alba’, the two colors to which Linnaeus referred in his description.
The Tachymarptis melba has legs that are too short compared to the body to be able to fly from the ground, but it is an excellent climber, capable of climbing a wall to the ideal height for gliding and flying.
It is an extremely specialized bird and therefore adapted to carry out almost all its vital functions in flight (including mating and sleeping) and as far as we know it only puts its feet down to lay its eggs and raise its young.
It has a powerful and rapid flight with slow and deep wing beats. They are known to engage in crepuscular ascensions, which are characterized by increased flight activity and altitude gain, and long-distance horizontal flights at dawn and dusk, perhaps part of social interactions between individuals.
These birds spend most of their lives in the air, feeding on the insects they catch with their beaks. They drink in flight, but perch on cliffs or vertical walls. A study published in 2013 showed that they can spend more than six months in flight without having to land. All vital physiological processes, including sleep, can be performed while in the air. In 2011, Felix Liechti and his colleagues at the Swiss Ornithological Institute attached electronic movement-recording tags to six birds and found that the birds could stay in the air for more than 200 days at a time.
The diet consists mainly of arthropods, mainly insects but also spiders. Insects from 10 orders and 79 families have been documented in the diets of individuals from Africa and Europe, with Homoptera, Diptera and Hymenoptera the most often consumed.
Prey is caught in flight thanks to its large mouth.
The species appears to have been much more widespread during the last ice age, with a large breeding colony, for example in cave no. 16 from the late Pleistocene, in Bulgaria, approximately 18,000-40,000 years ago. The same situation was found for the Komarowa Cave near Częstochowa, Poland, during a period between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Guido Bissanti

– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– C.Battisti, D. Taffon, F. Giucca, 2008. Atlas of nesting birds, Gangemi Editore, Rome.
– L. Svensson, K.Mullarney, D. Zetterstrom, 1999. Guide to the Birds of Europe, North Africa and the Near East, Harper Collins Publisher, United Kingdom.

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