The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Chimney Swifts are Back from the Amazon Basin
by Ro Wauer

Another of Mother Nature's amazing creatures has returned to its ancestral nesting grounds from its wintering grounds in South America. Chimney swifts are again flying about South Texas neighborhoods, consuming tons of insects and thrilling us with their amazing aerial gymnastics. Especially during courtship, they fly in twos and threes, circling and diving with utter abandonment. And then they soar with their wings held in a V-shape pattern, a behavior that occurs most often with their mates.

I was reminded of these fascinating "flying cigars" when I received two new books on chimney swifts, one titled "Chimney Swifts, America's Mysterious Birds above the Fireplace" ($16.95); the other "Chimney Swift Towers, New Habitat for America's Mysterious Birds, A Construction Guide" ($12.95). Both books, published by Texas A&M Press, were written by chimney swift specialists Paul and Georgean Kyle, directors of the Driftwood Wildlife Association's North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project (P.O. Box 300369, Austin, TD 78703-0007). The first book discusses Kyle's introduction and studies of chimney swifts; the second include details about chimney swift towers, nesting sites that one can construct to encourage these birds that have been declining in numbers over the last few decades. These are well written and deserve to be on your bookshelf.

Chimney swifts are best known for their use of chimneys for their nesting sites. They once nested only in dark tree trunks and similar cavities, using their gelatinous saliva to cement the tiny twigs together and to the wall. A single chimney will be utilized by only one nesting pair, although other individuals that are helpers only - usually last year's young - may also be present. A clutch consists of three to five youngsters. Until they are 28 to 30 days old, they are unable to feed themselves, but soon afterward they accompany their parents on their feeding excursions. Then, several family groups may be seen feeding together. Sometimes those flying flocks may number in the hundreds.

While utilizing a chimney, their communications can be quite loud, and for the homeowner who is not familiar with these little birds, the sounds can be weird and unsettling. This part of their personality, the need for dark places, causes some people to fear their presence. But that is silly because chimney swifts are not only one of our most fascinating birds, but also one of our most beneficial species. The Kyles refer to chimney swifts as "opportunistic feeders," and state that their diet includes "mosquitoes, midges, flies, spittlebugs, aphids, winged ants, tiny bees and wasps, mayflies, stoneflies, and termites." How can any creature be vilified that reduces those kind of human pests?

Those of us that appreciate wild birds, playing host to a family of chimney swifts is an annual event we truly enjoy. Watching them flying about the house and diving headfirst into a chimney is well worthwhile. Chimney swift flight is quite different from other birds, consisting of quick flickering wing beats and then sailing with wings held out motionless. At first glance, swifts might be misidentified as swallows, but they are not swallows at all. They are members of the same order of birds as hummingbirds, Adodiformes, a Greek word meaning "without feet," which is a misnomer because they do possess. They are delicate yet strong enough in flight to break small twigs off trees for nesting material. But like swallows and bats, their food and water is obtained in flight. Their diet consists primarily of flying insects and spiders on silken threads, and they skim water surfaces to drink.

Chimney swift towers have become a big deal throughout the country, especially at nature preserves, but also for a few private landowners. Encouraging chimney swifts, either with homemade towers or hosting chimney swifts in your own open chimney is well worth the effort.

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