Everyone has their own personal markers of summer—the flash of a firefly, the pulsing hum of cicadas, the aroma of freshly cut grass… I’m sure you have a favorite. To my mind, nothing says summer quite as definitively as the sight of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagic) foraging overhead.
These small, sleek birds have belonged to the feathered Jet Set since way back. They’re trendsetters, not fad followers. For example, fashionistas trade angora sweaters and down anoraks for bright floral sundresses and tropical guayaberas as the calendar flips past March, April, and May, but swifts stick to a classic all-season, all-purpose ensemble in understated hipster tones of sooty charcoal accented with an ash-gray ascot. Très chic! Moreover, chimney swifts really don’t need a cold weather wardrobe; when the temperature changes swifts change their address. They winter in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, or Chile, not St. Barts or Dubai, and they always summer east of the Rockies. They simply love, love, LOVE the U.S.A and Canada, dahling.
Every chimney swift would be a platinum-status frequent flyer if they weren’t all pilots themselves. Their cigar-shaped fuselage and narrow, curved wings are built for speed and acrobatic maneuverability, so you won’t find them shuffling through airport security headed for the first-class lounge. Commercial flights are so… pedestrian. Anyway, these birds are rarely ever seen standing still. Their Latin family name—Apodidae—means “footless,” and while that’s not strictly true their legs and feet are not their strongest feature. Swifts don’t perch; when forced to land they cling to vertical surfaces, including the walls of those eponymous chimneys.
Which brings us to another characteristic that sets swifts apart from the globetrotting glitterati. Long before Airbnb matched adventurers and accommodations, chimney swifts were bypassing 5 star hotels in favor of host families. It all started when Europeans arrived in the New World and began building houses and fireplaces. The local swifts, who had been housekeeping in hollow trees for more generations than anyone could count, saw an opportunity to make a killing in real estate. They seized the day and the rest is history. Now swifts are North America’s summer house guests, albeit usually uninvited and sometimes unwelcome.
It’s not because they’re inconsiderate. Swifts mostly mind their P’s and Q’s. They don’t monopolize the bathroom taking long, hot showers—a quick splash in a puddle or pool, followed by a thorough mid-air shake, does the trick. They never raid the family fridge—thousands of in-flight protein-rich insects snacks each day provide nourishment. They don’t expect a chambermaid and fresh linens—using found objects, such as small twigs, and glue-like saliva they fashion temporary fire-resistant DIY berths on the chimney wall to cradle their offspring.
Actually, it’s their kids that cause most conflicts with the conscripted landlords. Chimney swifts rear 1-2 broods of 3-5 young while visiting the Northern Hemisphere. The chicks, who snuggle up quietly together while napping, turn into the very definition of sibling rivalry each time a parent arrives at the nest to deliver a meal. The hungry mob push and shove for position, stretching wobbly necks to the heavens. They open their mouths wide and scream their heads off so Mom or Dad will notice and reward them with a juicy morsel. Those high-pitched squeals for attention amplify as they bounce down the open chimney shaft, past the damper, and out into the room below. Multiply that acoustic event by hundreds of feedings per day and the human residents can begin to feel as though they’re being strafed with sound.
There’s a simple solution to live and let live. A thick slab of Styrofoam™ (aka expanded polystyrene) from the local craft store, cut to fit snugly inside the hearth opening, will reduce the chatter to a tolerable decibel level. Just remember, their parents are scouring the skies above your humble abode for mosquitoes, making summer evenings outdoors much more pleasant. Plus, it only takes 2-3 weeks for the youngsters to progress from hatchling to flying away, which is pretty impressive you have to admit.
Still, if you’d rather not play innkeeper to international travelers you can turn off the Vacancy sign by installing a chimney cap. This relatively inexpensive device will not only exclude all manner of wild things from moving into (or falling down) the flue, the cap will also stop downdrafts, prevent sparks and embers from landing on the roof, and block rain, leaves, and branches.
Keep in mind, though, that once a chimney swift family has moved in you can’t legally evict them. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives swifts and most other wild birds a kind of diplomatic immunity so you’ll have to wait until they jet back to South America to pull up the Welcome mat.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).