I’m finding it very hard to predict what birds will arrive when, after this past month. There was some record breaking warm temperatures, followed by some snowy days. We had robins, red-winged blackbirds and eastern bluebirds show up ahead of their normal arrival dates. Since there was no snow on the ground, and the heat was thawing the ground quickly, these birds should do OK finding food, but if they begin nesting and we get another blast of freezing temperatures their first efforts are likely to fail.
We’ve been in the Deep South for the past two weeks and while we saw some wonderful birds, the majority of the tropical migrants have not yet made the journey across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America. There are always a few risk takers who decide to go early and in years like this, their risk may be rewarded with the best territories and a head start on raising families.
One of the species that is returning now is the Chimney Swifts. These small, dark grey swallow-like birds are not
ones you will find at your wild bird seed feeders or in your trees. They are unable to perch as other birds do, because of very short legs. However, sharp claws on their feet allow them to cling to a perpendicular surface. These birds, like their name suggests
are looking for long vertical shafts in which to roost and build their nests.
For people who grew up near old creameries, the sight of Chimney Swifts entering and leaving the tall brick chimneys was a common daily occurrence. Today those kinds of chimneys have disappeared. Before the European settlers arrived and started building houses with chimneys, these little birds used tall dead, hollow trees for their homes and nighttime shelters. But the settlers needed land to grow crops and raise their animals, so the trees, living and dead came down. Thankfully these resourceful little birds were able to adapt and take advantage of the human alternatives. They really have become urban birds over the past two centuries.
In more recent times, people have begun to block entry to their chimneys, since they are concerned about fire hazards and other chimney intruders like squirrels and raccoons, but this leaves the Chimney Swifts with few alternatives.
In Mississippi we learned about a movement to help the swifts, by building ‘houses’ for them. At the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, director Mark LaSalle showed us the book that tells people how to build them and the actual pseudo-chimney itself. Standing about 10 feet tall, it was a square wooden tower with a smaller top that allows the birds to enter and exit easily, but is able to keep predators out. They have installed a webcam too, in order to watch the process involved in building the nest, and raising the young.
While many dozens of Chimney Swifts may enter a structure, only one pair nests in each one. They tolerate other
swifts roosting there at night, but will not tolerate others attempting to nest in it. The nest itself is a small half-saucer shaped shelf of twigs that they adhere to the walls with glue-like saliva. One to five white eggs are laid in this precarious looking platform. Once they fledge from the nest, these birds become true aerialists, flying all day long, even bathing while on the wing – by skimming over the water and splashing down lightly.
While they are in the air a pair of Chimney Swifts and their young can consume over 12,000 flying insects in a day; the kind we are more than happy to share with them, like mosquitoes, gnats, and biting flies.
When dusk arrives, the birds gather together into a cloud of dark shapes and appear to be sucked into the tower they have chosen for a roost – like smoke going backwards. It is a sight few of us see nowadays. But hopefully, with education and the development of more of these artificial chimneys we can reverse the decline in numbers that began in the 1960s.
If you live in a town or city, go out with other bird watchers on a spring or summer evening and look up into the sky. If you hear a high pitched, nonstop chittering and a silhouette of a bird that looks like a ‘flying cigar’, you will have discovered the delightful Chimney Swift.
For information on how to build an artificial chimney for the birds go to http://www.chimneyswifts.org/
By Kate Crowley