Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Behold the chimney swift
EACH MAY, either my husband or I will be sitting in the recliner next to the dining room fireplace and will think we hear the faint rumble of thunder. The “thunder” will rumble again and perhaps again, never getting any closer or farther away. Then whichever one of us heard it will sound the alarm: “The Peruvians are back!”
“The Peruvians” is our nickname for the chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) that live in one of the four flues in our center chimney — the current couple and their ancestors have likely lived there since long before we ever did. More than one chimney sweep has advised us to cap the chimney: the nests are fire hazards, the birds carry vermin, they aren’t nearly as beneficial insect eaters as people would like you to think, etc.
Although I have heard that it is best to clear the chimney of the nest so the swifts build a new, secure nest the next year, I have no intention of capping the chimney. I like having the swifts there. I like hearing the soft flutter of their wingbeats echo into the dining room. And a month or so after they arrive, I like hearing the chorus of rapid chittering that the nestlings make. And then we get to see the babies sitting on the edge of the chimney watching their parents fly and taking their first ventures forth themselves, all to be gone by the end of August.
And go they do. To Peru. That’s where our nickname “The Peruvians” came from. And when I learned that fact in the somewhat significant armchair research I have done on chimney swifts over the years, that was the key to my staunch advocacy of their residence in my residence. I haven’t even been to Peru myself, and I can fly in an airplane. Any bird the size of a small squat ear of corn that flies with its own two wings from New Hampshire to Peru and back every year is welcome to hang out in my chimney for the summer. Let me know, chirpers, if there is anything you need, I am at your service.
I clean the hearth each fall and have collected a couple of chimney swift nests (one pictured here) that had disconnected from the flue and dropped into the fireplace—lovely little baskets of woven sticks Shaker-like in their simplicity. According to “Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior,” Volume 1, clutches of four to five eggs hatch in just under three weeks.
Nestlings hang out in the nest for a couple weeks and then fledglings spend the first few weeks of their lives clinging to the side of the sooty chimney peering up at their small opening to the blue sky, awaiting being fed by mom and dad and for their wings to grow and strengthen.
The swifts nest at different heights in our chimney. Some summers the thunder of wingbeats and the chitters of the chicks are distant, some summers they seem like they are right in the dining room with us. One summer, a chick really was almost in the room; on close inspection of the fireplace (which is off limits to fires even on the chilliest of late May evenings!) there was a baby bird fluttering around.
The flaps in the damper had been left in the open position and the chick must have dropped through. I pulled the damper out completely and used a soft duster to lift the chick up into the chimney where I watched it with a flashlight immediately climb up the wall of the flue and be greeted by one of the parents. Whew.
Chimney swifts have numerous unique and award-winning characteristics. Adult swifts eat and court completely on the wing. According to Stokes, it was once thought swifts even mated on the wing but in my copyright-1979 edition of their behavior guide, they say that “new” research shows the birds actually mate in the nest. Stokes also says they “fly north in small flocks of 20 to 30 birds, but fly south in fall in large flocks of hundreds of birds.”
I had planned to write about the swifts in this column at some point over the summer — I have been smitten by them for years. Someday I want to take a trip to some known swift migratory gathering place like Asheville, N.C., where people swoop in like the swifts themselves to a parking garage in October for the annual Chimney Swift stopover as they gather by the hundreds circling and diving into a tall smokestack to roost communally to stay warm overnight for a few nights on their way to South America.
I was nudged to write the column at this time by chimney swifts being mentioned in the NH Audubon’s latest “rare bird sighting.” Decline in New Hampshire, according to N.H. Audubon, is “2.7 percent per year” and swifts are “now only a third as common as they were 40 years ago.” Mentioned also is the website chimneyswifts.org which has long been a great site for all-things-chimney-swift.
For all their rarity and decline, there is a lot out there about the swifts. One You Tube video (just search “chimney swifts” and you’ll come up with lots) taken in Middleton, Nova Scotia, shows incredible footage from the top of a chimney as a constant stream of individual swifts fly into the chimney and take up a position for the night along the chimney wall.
But a couple chicken-and-egg questions about these birds seem to remain: Did chimney swifts not exist before chimneys? It is thought that they once nested in hollow trees — so when did they become “chimney” swifts? Hmmm.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.