May 2013

Chimney Swifts

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation, and Linette Bernard, Feathers & Ink

What a fascinating little bird, the chimney swift. As a child, learning to identify birds is not scientific, but putting memorable thoughts into remembering the name and behavior makes it much simpler. This swift, is commonly referred to as “the flying cigar!”

The 5-inch little bird has a short, squared tail and the crown of the head seems flattened. The wings are long and pointed and the bird flies in quick spurts. The bird’s tiny feet are helpless in land travel, but can cling to the sides of rough edges like a stone or brick chimney. If you live in an urban community, the twittering sound of the swift is commonly heard in the summer. They fly high, scooping up thousands of insects, in which they are totally dependent upon.

Like many species of birds, habitat decline is a concern. According to Minnesota Audubon, swift populations have dropped more than half in the United States since the 1960s. Nesting and roost sites were mainly hollowed out trees, and as these sites became less available the birds quickly adapted to the stone and brick chimneys found in many older homes. Chimney swifts are another neotropical migrant. These tiny birds are one of many that leave this area for another. The chimney swifts migrate to the Amazon Basin, leaving early in the fall and not returning until late spring when insects become more plentiful. Swifts are such a natural investment into insect control, but also raise eyebrows when seeing them entering a chimney at dusk.

Interesting facts:

    • The Reader's Digest Book of North American Birds suggests that a long-lived chimney swift may cover more than one million miles before it dies.

    • If insects are not flying due to weather changes, the swift can go into a temporary dormancy so bodily functions are decreased and less food (energy) is needed.

    • The chimney swift uses it's sticky saliva to glue nesting material together and to attach it to the side of a chimney or silo.

Sally and Leland Vander Linden were instrumental in the development of the Gladys Black Memorial Garden in Pleasantville, Iowa, dedicated in 2004. Cora Shadle Memorial Park holds a dedicated garden, including a 20-foot chimney swift tower, a shelter with an interpretive display about Gladys’ life, a butterfly garden, bird feeders, birdhouses, a nature trail with a bridge over a ravine and pond and a bed of daylilies, which happened to be one of Gladys’ favorite flowers.

These photos show building and the different interpretive panels around the building. Photos from Cecelia Mesecher.