Living Bird Magazine
Chimney SwiftChaetura pelagica
- ORDER: Caprimulgiformes
- FAMILY: Apodidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Vencejo de Chimenea (Spanish)
- Martinet ramoneur (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- Before European settlement brought chimneys to North America, Chimney Swifts nested in caves, cliff faces, and hollow trees. Their numbers rose accordingly, but a recent shift in chimney designs toward covered, narrow flues are unsuitable for nesting and may be contributing to a decline in this species’ numbers. For information about a Chimney Swift tower made specifically for nesting swifts, you can visit the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project.
- Chimney Swifts are among the most aerial of birds, flying almost constantly except when roosting overnight and nesting. When they do come to rest, they never sit on perches like most birds. Their long claws are suited only for clinging to the walls of chimneys and other vertical surfaces.
- Swifts even bathe in flight: they glide down to the water, smack the surface with their bodies, and then bounce up and shake the water from their plumage as they fly away.
- Large numbers of Chimney Swifts roost together in a single chimney during the nonbreeding season. There’s warmth in numbers: during cold nights, the temperature inside a chimney roost can be 70°F warmer than outside.
- Unmated swifts continue roosting together in the summer, sometimes in large groups. But the species does not nest colonially: you’ll find only one breeding pair nesting in any one chimney. The pair may tolerate other nonbreeders roosting in their chimney.
- The Chimney Swift uses glue-like saliva from a gland under its tongue to cement its nest to the chimney wall or rock face. Sometimes an unmated swift helps the breeding pair rear the young. The young outgrow the nest after about two weeks and have to cling to the nearby wall, in many cases even before their eyes are open.
- 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 in 1970. He had been banded in the same state in 1957.