The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chimney Swifts, a Real-Life Drama
by Ro Wauer

Each year when chimney swifts return to their ancestral nesting sites from their wintering homes in the Amazon Basin, I take the metal top off my chimney so they can reclaim their old nesting site. This year was no exception. A pair and their helpers, usually two or three of last year's young, begin building a nest, a bunch of little sticks glued together with their saliva and pasted on the inside of the brick chimney. All went well until about four weeks ago when a heavier than normal rain apparently loosened the nest from the wall. The nest, along with four tiny nestlings, fell onto the floor of the fireplace. I was alerted to their predicament by the louder than normal calls and strong wingbeats of the adults who flew about their helpless chicks, so small they could barely keep their heads up.

Looking closely through the glass fire screen, I discovered the fallen nest, broken into two parts, the larger of the two contained the four nestlings. Three were on top of what appeared to be a less mobile individual, but it seemed that all four were in a high state of excitement. One of the adults flew away up the chimney, but the other landed on the wall a few inches away from the babies. All continued their squeaking cacophony. I decided to leave them alone and let nature take its own course. In retrospect, that was a smart decision.

The adults continued feeding their babies, apparently just as they had done when the nest was still affixed to the chimney wall. Within a couple of days the three "stronger" (more vocal at least) young had crawled up onto a small log that I had left on the chimney floor; the nest had fallen almost on top of the log. But the fourth youngster remained in the broken nest; I considered removing it, as I thought it was too weak to survive. But after another couple days, it too crawled onto the log. It was obvious that all four babies continued to be fed by their parents.

The calling was considerably louder each time the parents brought food to the downed youngsters than when the nest and begging youngsters had been far up the chimney; all the action was now within ten feet of where Betty and I sat each evening while watching television. We literally had to turn up the volume with each feeding. If asked to describe the baby swift calls, a good description might be extremely agitating "chuh-chuh-chuh," sometimes like a freight train in the chimney. And after a few days, we detected different call notes, like rasping "raah-raah-raah," each time we looked in to see how they were doing. We wondered if it was a defensive call, even at their young age; it also resembled a hissing snake.

It took more than two weeks - it seemed twice that long - before the loudest of the begging declined. That was not because the feeding was over, but because the four youngsters had moved higher up in the chimney. We could still hear their loud chattering with each feeding, but the sound was at a greater distance, and the heavy adult wingbeats were not just inside the screen.

Almost a month later, when I climbed onto the roof and looked into the chimney, a single individual remained. I assumed it was the last of the four youngsters, the last of the individuals that had hatched. All the others were out flying with their parents, learning chimney swift secrets of survival. The fourth youngster will join them in a day or so.

How strange it is to be so closely associated with a growing family of wild birds, to be a witness to a disaster, but to see it through and to be part of an intimate success story.

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