Five fast facts about chimney swifts that still fly

Talk about a bird with an appropriate name. Not only do Chimney Swifts prefer to nest in chimneys, they are also a sooty gray color – like you might find in a well-used chimney.

Chimney swifts are almost always seen in flight, and during their migrations it can be quite impressive to see hundreds or even thousands of birds congregating in roosting places, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They are one of four types of swifts in the United States, but they are the only swift in the eastern United States, reports Birds & Blooms. In flight, they reveal their thick, cylindrical bodies, earning them the nickname “flying cigars”.

They are small birds, barely larger than a sparrow. They are dark gray or grayish-brown in color, and their throat patch is usually lighter in color, reports Cornell Lab. They have round heads and short necks, and their beaks are short and stubby. Males and females have the same plumage.

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Because they nest in chimneys and other similar structures, they are more common in populated urban and suburban communities, reports Cornell Lab. Even in their southern wintering grounds in South America, they will seek out chimneys or similar vertical structures to roost on.

Read on to learn more about these flying cigars.

They can really fly

Flight is not exactly unique among birds. It’s certainly not universal, but the vast majority of birds can fly. However, chimney swifts are taken to the next level. They are almost always flightless and are among the most aerial of all birds, according to the American Bird Conservancy.

Chimney swifts are always in flight except when nesting and roosting at night, reports Cornell Lab. They are so adapted to flight that they eat, drink and even bathe in flight. Eating is quite simple; they catch insects in the air as they move. Bathing in flight, however, requires some maneuvers. They do this by diving to the surface of the water, hitting the water with their bodies, and then bouncing up to shake the water off their feathers.

Because they are almost always in flight, they can travel long distances – up to 500 miles per day, reports the Wildlife Center of Virginia. They are also precise pilots, capable of executing complicated maneuvers when hunting insects to eat. They are aided in flight by their long wingtips, a feature they share with hummingbirds.

And they can really eat too

Chimney Swifts snatch their prey in flight, snatching insects mid-air, but the frequency with which they do this is even more impressive than their ability to do so. These birds can eat up to 12,000 insects in a single day, according to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Chimney swifts feed on many different habitat types, including grasslands, forests, swamps, and even urban and suburban neighborhoods, reports Cornell Lab. In flight, swifts catch insects with their beaks. Their main catches include flies, bees, ants, beetles and fleas.

Because they catch prey in flight, they prefer to concentrate on swarms, where they can catch many insects at once, according to the National Audubon Society. Although they mainly eat insects, they can also eat spiders and berries. They may also eat while resting, picking insects or other food from trees.

They don’t roost like other birds

We know that Chimney Swifts spend most of their time in flight, but even when they are resting, they don’t perch like other birds. They’re actually not able to perch like many other birds do, according to the Cornell Lab.
Instead, in the rare times when chimney swifts aren’t flying, they cling to vertical surfaces like walls and trees. They are able to do this due to the unique structure of their toes, nails and tail feathers, according to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Occasionally, young Chimney Swifts fall from their nests, and since they nest in chimneys, it is not uncommon to find them in chimneys. When this happens, you can simply put them back on the fireplace wall and they can cling to it and come back up, according to the South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic.

They hide their nests

Many birds build their nests in the branches of trees, while others rely on the ground to serve as a safe place for nesting. Chimney Swifts prefer to build their nests in more remote locations. Chimneys are obviously the favorite spot, but they also nest in outbuildings, barns, sheds, garages and even tree cavities, according to the Cornell Lab.

But how do you get a nest to adhere to the wall of a fireplace or other structure? Chimney Swifts do this with their saliva. They weave twigs and other plant matter into a loose, saucer-shaped nest, then glue it all together with their glue-like saliva.

The male and female work together to build the nest, then the female lays three to five solid white eggs which are incubated for about a week before hatching, according to the Virginia Wildlife Center. The chicks and hatchlings can be noisy when asking for food, but after about 30 days they are ready to leave the nest and survive on their own.

We don’t see as many as before

The population of chimney swifts is in steep decline in the United States, although the reason for this is different from that of many other birds. While many bird species are facing population declines due to habitat loss, pollution and climate change, among other factors, Chimney Swift numbers are declining for a very specific reason: they no longer manufacture fireplaces as before.

The population of chimney swifts flourished after European settlement in the United States due to the addition of houses and buildings with chimneys to the landscape, reports the Cornell Lab. Before that, the birds nested in caves, hollow trees and similar structures. Today, however, chimneys are designed to be narrower and many are covered. This means swifts have lost access to many easily accessible nesting sites.

In the United States, the bird population has dropped by about 53% and in Canada it has dropped by 90%, according to the National Audubon Society. Their world population is now estimated at around 15 million. In addition to the lack of nesting grounds, the Chimney Swift population is also affected by human disturbance at nesting grounds, climate change, and declining prey populations.

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