Back in the 1950s through the 1980s I remember birds that roosted in chimneys. There were large swarms that gathered in the evenings during late spring and summer that entered the chimneys. When entering, it looked likes torpedoes of birds. I remembered folks complaining about the bird’s nesting behavior and the mess that needed cleaning every autumn.
I did not know at the time what those birds were, other than it was cool to see them dive-bomb into chimneys.
Last year, I met Lisa Rock at Friends of Magee Marsh annual Christmas open house. Rock is a federally permitted bird bander. She volunteers under the supervision of the bird banding lab, a division of the United States Geological Survey program. While talking about her volunteer activities, the conversation turned to Chimney Swifts.
I had no idea what a Chimney Swift was until she started explaining about the bird’s behavior. Rock was also concerned about the Chimney Swift major decline in the United States. Ahh, the childhood memories came flooding back. So, that was what those birds were.
Chimney Swifts (Chaetura palegica) used to appear as silhouettes dancing through the sky, chattering away, and eating insects from dawn until dusk. Large colonies formed torpedo-like missiles as they descended into chimneys at dusk and often were mistaken for bats. During autumn, they migrated over 5,000 miles to their over-wintering grounds in South America, only to return in the spring to breed in North America.
Chimney Swift populations have been declining sharply since the 1960s. While the causes of these declines are manifold, loss of breeding habitat is the number one cause. Historically, chimney swifts preferred hollow trees as nesting and roosting sites. However, as American expansion replaced forests with towns, this resilient species adapted by using brick or masonry chimneys. More recently, however, the increased use of chimney-caps and fabricated chimneys has made finding suitable habitat challenging.
So, why is this bird important? A single swift consumes over 1,000 insects each day. This is amazing considering Chimney Swifts eat airborne insects. Feeding on the wing, they capture flies, bugs, bees, wasps, ants, mayflies, stoneflies, beetles, caddisflies, fleas, craneflies, mosquitoes and other insects. They grab large insects with their bills; small ones go right down the throat. Chimney Swifts feed over urban and residential neighborhoods, fields, grasslands, shrublands, orchards, forests, and marshes, sometimes some distance away from nest sites.
They can also pick insects from branch tips and “helicopter” down through the foliage to flush out prey. Normally daytime feeders, they sometimes hunt for insects at night around streetlights or lit windows. Wow, you talk about natural insect control.
So, how can we encourage these birds to come back and roost in our neighborhoods? The Chimney Swift spends almost its entire life airborne. When it lands, it cannot perch; rather, it clings to vertical walls inside brick chimneys or in hollow trees .We do not want to uncap our brick chimneys. Un-capping allows other unwanted critters such as squirrels and the masked bandit, the racoon, to enter our chimneys, then potentially into our homes. Also, most of our hollow trees have been removed due to safety concerns. The alternative is building Chimney Swift towers.
A Chimney Swift tower is normally constructed with T-111 wood siding with the grooves of the wood facing the interior of the tower. This allows areas for the swifts to cling to and build nests. The typical tower is about 5 feet by 5 feet and 20 feet to 30 feet tall and can accommodate around 100 birds.
Currently there is four Chimney Swift Towers constructed in Sandusky County. The Green Creek Wildlife Society as partnered with local groups to help in construction of the towers. For more information or to view a tower contact Tom Kashmer, executive director, at email@example.com.
Another resource is the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project. This organization has design plans and videos on how to construct a Chimney Swift tower. To access their organization, refer to this website: http://www.chimneyswifts.org/.
Did you know the oldest recorded Chimney Swift was a male, and at least 14 years old when he was recaptured and released during banding operations in Ohio back in the year 1970? He had been banded originally in Ohio back in 1957. So, a little bit of math. 10,000 miles migration each year. Multiply by 14 years gives us a whopping 140,000 miles. Is it possible to cash those in for frequent flyer miles?