Chimney Swifts

Photo Group
Ruth's Chimney Swift Tower
Photo by: 
Ruth Simmons

During spring and summer, Chimney swifts can be seen high in the sky constantly chattering as they forage for insects. They fly so high and so fast that sometimes you can only hear them not see them. When you do get a look at them, they appear like a cigar with wings. Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are about 5 inches long from head to tail, have bow shaped wings, and are a “sooty” black color over all their body. Their flight song is a loud continuous chatter. They fly constantly from sunrise to sunset snatching insects in midair.

Before the arrival of European settlers, chimney swifts nested in large hollow trees east of the Mississippi River. Over the years these trees have been cut down, but the building of chimneys created new nesting sites for the swifts. This has allowed them to move farther west to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They arrive in our area mid-April and leave around the end of September. Their nests are half-cup shaped and are formed on the walls of the chimney using twigs. The swift’s sticky saliva holds the nest together and to the wall of the chimney. The nest is small, sticking out from the wall only two to three inches. Chimney swifts usually lay 4-5 eggs and they hatch in 19-21 days and then fledge at 28-30 days. If the nestling falls from the nest and is uninjured, it has the ability to climb back up to its home.

As with many birds, the numbers of chimney swifts have been declining since the 1980’s. More and more trees are being cut down, new construction uses metal lined chimneys, and many homeowners “cap” their chimneys. Metal lined chimneys are too slick to be suitable nest sites and should be capped to prevent any animal from becoming trapped in them. Masonry chimneys make great nest sites with a little care from the homeowner. Take the cap off the top, have the chimney cleaned in March, close the damper, and then sit back and enjoy the aerial show! If you have the desire, space, and money you can also put up your own chimney swift tower. The materials cost about $300.00, so this is not a project to be taken lightly.

If you would like more information on chimney swifts, towers, or the North American Chimney Swift Nest Project you can visit www.chimneyswift.org.

By Ruth Simmons

SUMMER 2003