Reuters - A swift flying close to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in March 2012.
A swift flying close to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in March 2012. Scores of small black birds have laid eggs in the cracks in the wall. Photo by Reuters
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What brought a Trappist monk from Atlanta, a handful of yeshiva students and a busload of high-school techno geeks from the former Soviet Union together at Jerusalem's Western Wall last week?

No, there is no punch line coming up, nor does the answer have to do with the ancient Jewish Temple that once stood here, or the Al-Aqsa mosque rising above, or, really, for a change, with God or religion at all.

The eclectic group, rounded out by dozens of unruly 11-year-olds from Givatayim on a school trip, a bevy of academics, the capital's smartly dressed mayor and his deputy, a respectable number of the city's foreign journalists and an 88-year-old South African with professional binoculars around his neck, had gathered for the birds.

The common swift, to be precise.

For over 2,000 years flocks of swifts, who spend years in the air - eating, sleeping and mating in flight - have faithfully stopped here on their annual journey from southern Africa in order to do the one thing the cannot do while aloft: to nest and lay their eggs. The small black birds, which weigh between 35 grams and 45 grams each, typically arrive in late February and stay for about 100 days before heading home.

For the past several years the Friends of the Swifts Association has organized an official welcome, with banners, speeches and soft drinks.

"It turns out that Jews are not the only ones with a special relationship to this wall," begins Mayor Nir Barkat, addressing a small but enthusiastic audience. The wall's official rabbi stands nearby, nodding in agreement. "And just as we welcome and respect all those who come to our city, Muslims and Christians alike, I would also like to welcome the swifts, and wish them a happy spring."

It's fair to assume that the historical, political and religious significance of the 65-foot-high Western Wall is lost on the birds. But the cracks between the wall's massive limestone blocks and the cavities behind them - now, that has appeal.

In 2002 German bird researchers mapped out 88 swift nesting sites that the FSA now carefully protects. Any restoration work on the wall must take them into account to avoid disturbing or ruining them.

"This is possibly the most ancient swift nesting place in the world, and we want to be sure to take care of it," says Yossi Leshem, director of Tel Aviv University's International Center for the Study of Bird Migration. Leshem is spearheading efforts to get communities associated with popular swift nesting spots, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Tel Aviv's International Style buildings of Tel Aviv, to cooperate in tracking and studying these birds, whose numbers in the world are dwindling.

"By next year we hope to make it into a big international project, in cooperation with the Palestinians, Jordanians and the European Union," Leshem says. "We want to connect people of different religions through the birds."

"They are rather drab," opines Max Patz, 88, who moved to Israel six years ago from South Africa, learned about the welcome ceremony from an announcement in the paper and dragged along his wife and a granddaughter - one of 35 - to see what it was all about.

"Ninety-eight percent of South African Jews originally come from Lithuania, where they were not really connected to nature, but then we changed," Patz says. "I grew up in a small town 100 kilometers from Johannesburg, and we lived with animals. As a boy I would walk four miles to school when I missed the bus, and would see birds flying everywhere. When I grew up I joined a bird club."

Now in a wheelchair, and less familiar with the birds of his adopted country, Patz does not go out birding as much as he would like. "The swifts look like swallows, but they are not related at all," he explains to his Israeli-born granddaughter, as the guests of honor begin to scream loudly, flying faster and faster above the wall plaza. "Look how these swifts live on the wing entirely. They do everything in flight," says Patz with respect. "They never stop."