Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chimney swifts return to Northville, NY

Chimney swifts, Chaetura pelagica, lived in North America before Europeans arrived. Before cities. Before factories. Before the proliferation of brick chimneys.

When John James Audubon wrote about the birds in the early 1800's, they were known as American swifts. They lived in hollow trees and other natural shafts, and they were not found west of the Mississippi River.

As America expanded westward consuming forests, natural swift roosting sites declined but chimneys became more abundant. American swifts adapted to man-made structures and became chimney swifts. Their range now extends from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. 

These birds are little dynamos. They fly from dawn until dusk, catching insects. They fly fast on slender pointy wings that curve behind them. They are about five inches long, gray to black, with silvery gray throats. They have somewhat stubby bodies and are sometimes described as "flying cigars." Most of us will only ever see them flying. They scoop up drinking water in their beaks while flying low over ponds, puddles, rivers, and lakes. They even snatch up nest material while flying.

Inside chimneys, they perch vertically, clinging to the rough mortar with long claws, stabilized by short stiff tails. Their little nests are made of twigs and stuck to interior walls of chimneys with the swift's sticky glue-like saliva. The nests protrude about two or three inches, like halves of saucers stuck to the wall. Each nest will hold three to seven tiny white eggs.

Like the famous swallows that return to Capistrano on the same day every year, chimney swifts are philopatric. They return from their wintering sites in South America to the same places and close to the same times each year -- close enough to predict the date. Like May 6th, when a flock returns to a particularly scenic chimney in Northville, NY, a village on the northern tip of Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

I joined villagers and visitors to greet the returning birds on May 6th, 2010, in what has become an annual celebration there. It was awesome!

That's the Hubbell Memorial Chimney in the
photo, where the birds roost. It's all that's left of the Hubbell Glove Factory, which burned to the ground in January 1918.

The chimney is on
Second Street, just off Bridge Street.

This year, the school jazz band started performing around 7:00, providing entertainment while we waited for the bi
rds. Cub scout troop 55 made fried dough.

Neighbors milled and chatted.

Kids ran around.

Some even showed up in costume.

As the sun set and the sky began to darken, a few swifts flew high overhead, chittering softly. They always seem to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as suddenly. As evening deepened, groups of swifts swooped lower and closer to the chimney. People pointed. Old-timers said knowingly "they're coming." Around 8:15 a few dozen birds came flashing by, inspiring the children to shriek "THEY'RE COMING! THEY'RE COMING!"

Chittering swifts passed overhead.

But this year, the night of May 6th was unusually cold and windy. Although a few dozen swifts circled and made many close passes, I only saw two dive down the chimney. The next night was warmer, still, and fair. After 8:00, as darkness spread, the swifts came closer and closer, louder and faster.

It was exciting. The birds twittered and chatted, passing over more often, finally staying to circle around the chimney at tremendous speed. Then they whirled and dove head first into the chimney and were gone! Near the end, as birds plummeted from the sky to disappear down the chimney, they gave the illusion of being sucked into the chimney. People often say it looks like they are flowing down a funnel.

They fly so fast that photographing them poses a problem for an amateur like me. The fast flight needs a fast shutter speed. But it's dark, so a slow shutter speed is required to gather enough light. I end up with photos of blurred birds that look a bit like chimney smoke, I think of them as "impressions:"

The chimney swifts may have to change their habits again. Over time our chimneys have evolved from wide open-topped brick stacks to narrow metal-lined shafts with caps over them. Swift nests will not stick to metal. The birds need surfaces that they can grasp, like stone, firebrick, or masonry flue tiles with mortared joints. Although metal chimneys should be capped because animals can become trapped in them, homeowners routinely cover all chimney openings with caps or screens, so even if they are appropriate for swifts, they are not available.

Most people would probably not mind if swifts used their chimneys during summer, especially considering the benefits of having voracious insect-eaters nearby. Attracting chimney swifts requires only keeping the top of the chimney open and the damper closed from March through October (they show up earlier south of New York). It is also a good idea to schedule chimney cleaning for early March, after the fire season but before the birds return.

 One common concern about swifts is that sometimes the begging noise of nestlings can be heard from inside the house. The problem can be ameliorated by making sure the damper is closed and possibly by placing some insulation or foam rubber below it. Anyway, the period when they are loud enough to be heard is usually only for the two weeks just before they leave the nest.

You may find yourself looking forward to the return of your own chimney swifts!

Visit Northville between May 6th and mid-August to see the swifts turn in for the night.

Or try to find the chimney swifts that live near you by contacting a local bird group or nature society.

There is more information about chimney swifts in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011.


  1. I am fascinated by this. Your pictures and comments are like being there. Can't wait to read your book!

  2. Your blog with its photos provided texture to the entry in your book about the swifts. Just fascinating! Thanks for the link. Rona

  3. Thanks to both of you. This is a really fun mini vacation. The area is a beautiful vacation spot but overly crowded for my taste in summer. In May it is just right.

  4. This is exactly what I watch at dusk on weekends when I'm at my best friends house in West Salem, Wi.
    The chattering is an awesome sound to my ears and the sight to watch them go in our chimney is breathtaking:)

  5. Hi Anonymous! Lucky you to have chimney swifts across the street, even if just on the weekends! Best, Julie

  6. I lived there pretty much my whole life. I seen them come back every year and it was exciting!!!! My father used to say "let's go Sarena before we miss them"!
    Just seeing this after all these years "WOW"! Thank you

    1. Lucky you to have such a nice experience with chimney swifts in your life!