The first time that someone pointed out a Chimney Swift to you in the sky overhead, I bet they said, “You can tell it’s a Chimney Swift just by its shape; it looks like a flying cigar.” Indeed, this uniformly dark bird has a small head with a tiny beak, and a short, tapered tail that give it the appearance of a cigar sprouting long, pointed wings.
Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) appear in Connecticut skies in late April and early May after spending the winter in South America. These diminutive birds require flying insects for sustenance, so if spring’s unpredictable temperatures plummet, or precipitation grounds the insects, swifts will settle into their roosting or nesting sites and lower their body temperature to conserve energy until the weather improves. They feed and drink on the wing, scooping insects in mid-flight and skimming over open water with gaping beak. Like many other aerial-feeding birds, they readily take advantage of the emergence of mating flights of ants, termites and adult mayflies.
Based on their feeding habits and general appearance, you’d think swifts were related to swallows and martins. They’re not. Swifts belong to the order Apodiformes, which, surprisingly, also includes Hummingbirds. (Both families have a similar wing structure.) There are about 100 species of swifts in the world, but only the Chimney Swift is found in the eastern United States, and belongs to the subfamily Chaeturinae, the spine-tailed swifts. Their short tail feathers have stiff shafts that protrude from the tips, allowing them stability while perching against the vertical surface of the inside of a chimney or other structure.
Today, Chimney Swifts nest in chimneys, though they nested in hollow trees before human-made structures became available. (Hmm, what were they called back then?) The very unusual nest is constructed of small twigs broken from dead branches; the swift grasps the twigs with its feet while in flight and then secures them to the inside wall of the chimney with its saliva. Both the male and female of the mated pair help to build the nest where the female will lay three to six pure white eggs.
Why do Chimney Swifts need our help? The large, open chimneys that they have come to depend on for nesting sites are increasingly being capped with screening to prevent raccoons, squirrels, Wood Ducks, and Chimney Swift from nesting within. A new project in Connecticut aims to build free-standing chimney towers to provide breeding sites for these little birds so that they may continue to fill our skies.