Chimney swifts: our aerial acrobats

Chimney swifts are uniquely adapted to cling to vertical surfaces. Photo by Amanda Sebrosky

If you have ever attended the Cleveland Metroparks North Chagrin Reservation event called "A Swift's Night Out," you would have been treated to a free show of breath-taking aerial acrobatics as chimney swifts caught bugs and prepared to enter their roost for a well deserved night's rest.

Chimney swifts are unique birds. They cannot stand or perch but are uniquely adapted to grasping the inside of old hollow trees and masonry chimneys, which they adapted to using as settlers cut down the forests. Their Latin name is Chaetura pelagica, referring to a tail which has spiny ends. Their specialized toes and this pointy tail help them cling to vertical surfaces.

Chimney swifts are aerial insectivores, which means they catch all their food while in flight. They can eat one-third their body weight in mosquito-sized insects daily – more if they are feeding a nest of hungry hatchlings. Not only do these birds catch all food while flying, they do just about everything "on-the-wing," including bathing by skimming the surface of ponds or lakes.

In spring, chimney swifts return to the U.S. everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. In the fall, they migrate several thousand miles back to South America having raised a clutch of 3-5 babies if they were able to find a suitable nesting site.

Chimney swift habitat continues to shrink as chimneys are capped, torn down or not built, and forests in the U.S. and South America shrink. Because of these factors, chimney swift populations have fallen rapidly, decreasing by over 50% since 1966, according to Audubon Society.

Humans can help give chimney swifts more places to nest and roost by building artificial chimneys called chimney swift towers. We can also help by uncapping masonry chimneys, cleaning creosote from chimneys yearly, capping metal chimneys (to protect swifts from slippery, dangerous surfaces). But, before you uncap your chimney, understand that young swifts can be VERY noisy when begging for food (what baby isn't?) and swifts are protected by federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so it is illegal to remove or disturb chimney swifts, their nests, eggs or young during the breeding season.

Georgean and Paul Kyle, wildlife rehabilitation specialists living in Texas, have researched chimney swifts for nearly 30 years and have developed a relatively inexpensive tower that is accepted by chimney swifts for nesting and roosting. The towers are 8 to 12 feet tall and need to be at least 10 feet from overhangs, giving the birds an adequate glide-path to the tower as well as protection from squirrels and raccoons that may "drop in for a light meal." They provide instructions for how to build towers in the book, "Chimney Swift Towers: New Habitat for America's Mysterious Bird," by Paul Kyle.

Here in Bay Village, a group of like-minded people are working to get towers installed in the parks and yards in Northeastern Ohio, starting in Bay Village. If you are interested in learning more, please email or see our Facebook group Northeast Ohio Chimney Swift Conservation.

Amanda Sebrosky

Resident of Bay Village for about 30 years. Founder of Northeast Ohio Chimney Swift Conservation. Volunteers at Cleveland Metroparks, Lake Erie Nature and Science Center and Lights Out Cleveland Program. BA in Biology from CWRU. MS in Urban Studies, Environmental track from CSU.

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Volume 11, Issue 23, Posted 10:13 AM, 12.03.2019