Have you ever walked past your fireplace in the summer and wondered what was making that loud, high-pitched noise? Have you ever been outside looking at your house and thought you saw what looked like a flying cigar or bat zip down your chimney? If so, Chimney Swifts may be temporary summer residents in your home, and they may be busy raising their young in your chimney.
What Are Chimney Swifts?
Chimney Swifts are small to medium size aerial acrobats with long, curved wings and black to dark brown plumage. They have extremely short legs and their family name, Apodidae, means “without feet.” They spend most of their lives on the wing, drinking and bathing, copulating and even spending the night in the air. They capture their food in flight. And good news for us: they eat nearly one third of their own weight daily in flying insects and spiders, which includes mosquitoes, biting flies, ballooning spiders and termites.
Swifts are closely related to hummingbirds because they share similar wing structures, characteristics that relate to their very fast wing movements. They are very fast flyers with narrow, swept back wings. Swifts do not perch; instead, they have stiff, spiny tails that aid in clinging vertically to rough surfaces such as the chimneys or silos in which they roost or raise their young.
Chimney Swift Nesting
Chimney Swift nests consist of sticks in a partial stick cup held together with the birds’ cement-like saliva. Four to five nestlings are fed one to three times per hour. The parents carry boluses (bundles or round masses of many insects – a ball of pure protein) in their mouths ready to feed to their nestlings. Both sexes incubate and care for the young, which hatch after about 19 days of incubation and fledge after 28-30 days of feeding.
The very loudest sounds from swifts are made by babies when they are being fed. Although quite loud, there will be only one active nest in any chimney at one time. Normally, by the time the babies become loud enough to be heard, they are less than a couple of weeks from being old enough to feed themselves and leave their nest. After that, most of the noise will be over.
History and Benefits of Chimney Swifts
Chimney Swifts are fascinating and extremely beneficial birds, even though their sounds are not music to everyone’s ears. Two parents and their noisy young will consume more than 12,000 flying insect pests every day. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline due to loss of habitat-first large hollow trees, and now open and large masonry chimneys.
Historically swifts nested in hollow trees. Like purple martins, Chimney Swifts have become dependent on man-made structures after learning to nest and roost in chimneys and air shafts. The increased use of chimney caps has also reduced nesting sites.
Chimney Swifts are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916. Nests, eggs and birds cannot be removed from chimneys. However, if you see them around your chimney, be sure to close the damper to prevent them from entering your house.
Swifts winter in the Amazon Basin of Peru. Typically they arrive in Ohio in April and depart by October. At the end of the breeding season, the swifts’ communal instincts peak prior to fall migration. They congregate by the hundreds and even thousands, feeding in preparation for the long flight to the Amazon Basin of Peru. The location of a large roost in August, September and early October is a good reason to order up a ‘spectacle celebration’.
Chimney Swift Champions
The North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project is an effort to promote swift conservation by identifying and monitoring existing nest and roost sites. Members are educating property owners about the beneficial nature of swifts as insectivores and are designing, installing and monitoring new structures specifically for use by the swifts. Visit the Driftwood Wildlife Association research project site for additional information on structures that can be built to help these declining birds: http://www.chimneyswifts.org/. Paul and Georgean Kyle should be applauded for their efforts to increase awareness and to help the chimney swifts by their many conservation measures.
Locally we have others who have increased awareness about the swifts. Marc and Toni Stahl of the National Wildlife Federation have built a Swift Tower along side their home in Dublin and have a family of swifts in residence as this article is being written the end of July. They live in a small urban yard and did not see Chimney Swifts until they added native plants. The insects fed on the plants, and then the swifts showed up to eat the insects. Toni and Marc have noticed that their flight pattern consistently goes directly down the row of native trees left behind the homes on their street, then over their yard, but not over neighbors’ yards with chemically treated lawns that kill the insects swifts eat. Check out the picture of their chimney and visit their website to learn more about their special work.Toni and Marc are regular contributors to the Columbus Audubon Song Sparrow and we thank them for their passionate work in many areas of nature.
Jenny Bowman is another Columbus Audubon member who has helped to increase the awareness of the swifts. She teaches music at Scottish Corners Elementary in Dublin and emails teachers and parents about the staging swifts. She also prepares a handout to give her students to encourage them to see an amazingly great, free show at Sells Middle School. You will see her there night after night, talking to students and their families then quietly turning to count the birds as they slip into the large chimney. Then Jenny submits the counts to www.chimneyswifts.org (and you can, too!).
I learned that Jenny was out by Capital University and their boiler plant at Mound and College Ave. and had talked to employee Dave King about the boilers. They stopped running them in the summer after Jenny came by. She told them about swifts and their need for roosting sites. It took two years for the swifts to return and they were counted last year at over 4500 birds during peak staging. I applaud Jenny for her dedication to spread the word to get others to help the swifts.
Cathy Pello from Ohio Wildlife Center is one of only a few rehabbers who work to care for orphaned swifts successfully in our area. Caring for Chimney Swifts is extremely difficult. Last year Cathy funded an Eagle Scout to build a swift tower in her yard so she could have better success to return the swifts to the wild. Paul and Georgean Kyle have written a book on rehabilitating Chimney Swifts.
In 2006, Glenn Snow, a good friend and videographer, visited the Sells Middle School site and created this YouTube clip. In the spring of 2008, Columbus Audubon sponsored several Boy Scouts in their Eagle Projects by helping to fund the construction of swift towers in Franklin and Delaware Counties. Plans from the Driftwood Wildlife Association were used.
Seeing Chimney Swifts in the Columbus Area
One of the most reliable locations for viewing swifts is in Dublin behind Sells Middle School on Rt. 33/161 just west of Dublin Road. Families and birders bring their lounge chairs and wait in the fading sunlight for the swifts to begin their mostly counter-clockwise flight around the large brick chimney. Then as the light dims, suddenly the birds begin to disappear inside the school chimney. Sometimes it appears as if they are being sucked into the vast chimney of the 1919 school building. Over the years, several counters, myself included, have tried to count the swirling mass of twittering, chittering swifts; best counts have been upwards of four thousand plus at that single site.
Can you imagine where you would want to be in that chimney for the night: near the top? Remember: a great horned owl has an eight-inch reach… so perhaps near the bottom? Let your imagination wonder on that thought!
There are many other places to watch staging swifts. Some reliable sites are in old buildings, schools, churches and warehouses in downtown Columbus, downtown Westerville, Galena and Delaware. When you find a good spot, please email me your sightings of swifts in the central Ohio area. Note the address of the building where you see the birds entering, note whether it is public or private property, and suggest a viewing location. See if you can make a count of the birds entering the chimney and the time they start and finish. We will post your observations on the Columbus Audubon website.
By the way, I found the Sells Middle School site about 6 or 7 years ago at dusk while pumping gas. The noise of the birds across the street at the middle school caught my attention. I drove over behind the building and I was mesmerized by what I witnessed. There were thousands of swifts entering the tall chimney and it looked like a stream of reverse smoke. I began sharing what I saw and I began learning more about Chimney Swifts. The rest is history.
Take an interest in birds, you can make a difference. It is interesting and fun to learn and share as a family. Share your observations with friends and get others to discover what they can do to be active in avian conservation. The Chimney Swifts are one species that we can help. Step up to the task and care about your environment and backyard habitats. Enjoy the seasons of migration! We want to hear from you. We want to hear that you are teaching others and that you are making a difference for tomorrow.