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~ The Chimney Swift ~

As might be guessed, Swifts are named for their fast flight, in excess of 160 km/hr. With large, rounded heads, short stubby tails and impressive 30 cm wingspans, Chimney Swifts are often likened to flying cigars. Few birds spend such a large proportion of their life on the wing, save perhaps the albatross. Foraging in mid-air for flying insects, they follow an erratic trajectory marked with rapid changes in speed and direction, punctuated with a clicking call. They even drink on the wing, skimming water off the surface of ponds. The unusual anatomy of their little feet, with all toes pointed forward, makes conventional perching nearly impossible, and the swifts have no choice but to cling to a vertical surface to rest at night. Even their nests look like baskets barely jutting out of the incline, and the eggs are incubated with the parent hugging the wall, sideways. Fledglings have to litteraly climb out of the shaft to take their maiden flight.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Chimney Swifts roosted and nested in shafts of hollow snags from mature trees, where they seeked shelter from predators and the elements. Years of land clearing have caused a significant reduction in the number of large-diameter snags in the few remaining forests. Following increased nesting site competition from the aggressive, introduced European Starlings, the Swifts were forced to adapt to man-made chimneys. They have been observed in airshafts, wells, cisterns and masonry barbecue pits! As long as it's nearly 2 m deep, and suitably dark, they will like it, if they find it.

The birds are strongly migratory and spend the winter, when chimneys are in use, in the Amazon Basin, in South America; when they return to their North American breeding grounds in the summer, the chimneys are generally cold. After raising a single brood, they usually depart Canadian sites in the month of August for their 10000 km voyage.

Chimney Swifts are believed to form pairs for life, sharing everything from nest building to foraging in each other's company. While birds are famous for roosting in large numbers in single chimneys, during the breeding season, the pairs spread out and man-made shafts and will nest in solitude - though they will accept the company of non-breeding birds.

Sadly, North American Breeding Bird Surveys reveal that the Chimney Swift population is declining, particularly at the northern edge of its range. It is believed that the metal flue pipes, capped chimneys that are fashionable these days have played an important role in this decline, as well as toxic creosote buildup in the few chimneys left for the birds to roost and breed.

Us Canadians, as custodians of the bird's northern range, can provide vital help to turn the tide of their decline into a recovery. Bird-lovers in Texas have made much experimentation and have become very successful in attracting the birds to nest in specially-built Chimney Swift towers made from wood. Plans are available from the links below. Just think of the pleasure that such a tower will provide your whole neighborhood!

There are a few places where the birds are known to roost in Canada. Their presence is unpredicable owing to their habit of communal roosting in the spring and fall, following or preceeding their migration, and the pairs spreading out for breeding.

Viewing the bird's return from a day of foraging, forming a high-altitude tornado of birds, with individuals taking turns spiralling down the chimney, is a privileged sight indeed. They tend to enter when it's quite dark, possibly to avoid predation.

The Catholic Church in St-Jovite, QC, neighborhing the touristic hub town of Mont-Tremblant and Mont-Tremblant Park is an easy-to-find landmark in the small town with its prominent red brick chimney, hosts a roost of over 100 birds, and is worth checking out in June and early July. If you miss the birds, stick around past dusk, and enjoy the abundant bats flying about the church parking lot. If you come from far, try contacting the local bird watching club, the Club ornithologique des Hautes-Laurentides in St-Jovite, (819)425-3300 for an update.

The chimney of the Mont-Laurier Seminary, QC, now a high school, is further up in the Laurentians, but is used by over 500 roosting Chimney Swifts, numbers in excess of 1500 have also been reported. The school is located at 565 de la Montagne.

In Fredericton, NB, the birds may occasionally be observed at the Incutech Building Chimney on the University of New Brunswick campus, a fact that a local merlin is wise to.

Middleton, NS, is home to over 500 Chimney Swifts roosting at the Middleton Regional High School, 18, Gates Ave.

If you're in Pembroke, ON you might consider visiting the chimney of the Pembroke Memorial Centre arena on Pembroke St.

The Windsor, ON Walkerville High School houses over 400 swifts, best viewed from near the tennis courts behind the school (2100 Richmond St).

Surprising fact: although they resemble swallows, molecular evolution studies have shown that they are more closely related to hummingbirds (Bleiweiss et al, 1997, Wistow et al, 1990).





Chimney Swifts Links

Environment Canada - Abandoned house in Pelee Island that is home to Chimney Swifts, with photographs of baby birds in the nest.
Nature Photographer - Interesting species account.
Chimney Swift Management Abstract - MS Word document relating to the conservation status of the Chimney Swift.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources - Plans for building a Chimney Swift tower.
Richard and Dian Van Vleck - Videos of nesting birds.
Linwood Alternative Program - View the contruction of a tower.
Bird by Bent - Lovely accounts from a 1940's article.

References


Bleiweiss R, Kirsch JA, Matheus JC, 1997. DNA hybridization evidence for the principal lineages of hummingbirds (Aves:Trochilidae). Mol Biol Evol. 14(3):325-43.
Wistow G, Anderson A, Piatigorsky J, 1990. Evidence for neutral and selective processes in the recruitment of enzyme-crystallins in avian lenses. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 87(16):6277-80.


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