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Chimney Swift

Chaetura pelagica ORDER: APODIFORMES FAMILY: APODIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

A bird best identified by silhouette, the smudge-gray Chimney Swift nimbly maneuvers over rooftops, fields, and rivers to catch insects. Its tiny body, curving wings, and stiff, shallow wingbeats give it a flight style as distinctive as its fluid, chattering call. This enigmatic little bird spends almost its entire life airborne. When it lands, it can’t perch—it clings to vertical walls inside chimneys or in hollow trees or caves. This species has suffered sharp declines as chimneys fall into disuse across the continent.

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Keys to identification Help

Swallowlike
Swallowlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Chimney Swifts are very small birds with slender bodies and very long, narrow, curved wings. They have round heads, short necks, and short, tapered tails. The wide bill is so short that it is hard to see.

  • Color Pattern

    They are dark gray-brown all over, slightly paler on the throat. At distance and when backlit against they sky they can appear to be all black.

  • Behavior

    Chimney Swifts fly rapidly with nearly constant wingbeats, and often twist from side to side and bank erratically. Their wingbeats are stiff, with very little flex at the wrists. They often give a high, chattering call while they fly.

  • Habitat

    Chimney Swifts nest in chimneys and on other vertical surfaces in dim, enclosed areas, including air vents, wells, hollow trees, and caves. They forage over urban and suburban areas, rivers, lakes, forests, and fields.

Range Map Help

Chimney Swift Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

The Vaux’s Swift of western North America is very similar to the Chimney Swift, but their breeding ranges do not overlap. Swallows such as the Cliff Swallow, Tree Swallow, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow can be easily confused with swifts, but swallows have shorter, less curved wings. In particular, the trailing edge of a swallow’s wing is much straighter, giving the wing an overall more triangular shape compared to the swift’s scimitar-shaped wings. Swallows flap their wings more fluidly than swifts, which have such stiff wings that they almost look like oars rowing through the air. Swallows also show paler underparts than Chimney Swifts.

Backyard Tips

Chimney Swifts may take up residence in your brick chimney if you leave the chimney cap off. It’s a good idea to keep the damper closed during summer and to schedule chimney cleanings either before or after the breeding season. If you don’t have a chimney, you can build a swift nesting tower with plans from the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project.

Find This Bird

The “flying cigar” silhouette of the Chimney Swift is a common sight all summer in the skies over eastern cities and towns. Lakes and rivers are especially good places to look for swifts, where they often forage along with swallows, which have broader wings and more fluid wingbeats. Be sure to keep an ear out for their distinctive, high-pitched chattering calls—they often call on the wing while foraging. During migration, thousands of swifts roost together in chimneys, funneling into them at dusk in spectacular tornado-like flocks.