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Blane Klemek column: Urban birds are expert aerialists

For the life of me, I don't see the resemblance between a flying cigar and a chimney swift.

First of all, the very notion of a flying cigar is ridiculous at best. At worst, the moniker is a somewhat derogatory label, unless of course you happen to appreciate the beauty of short and fat cigars. Nevertheless, nearly every account I've ever read about chimney swifts describes the unique birds as "flying cigars."

If the chimney swift must be compared to anything, I would suggest they be likened to (in flight at least) bats. But the birds' incessant chirping diminishes this comparison because, as most people know, bats are relatively silent on the wing -their high-pitched sonar is usually beyond our ability to hear.

What the chimney swift truly looks like, however, is any one of the many different species of North American swallows. Indeed, swifts have long slender wings and relatively short tails like swallows, short and wide bills like swallows, and smallish feet and short legs like swallows. In addition, swifts behave in several ways like some species of swallows do, yet, chimney swifts are unrelated to swallows. Of all birds, chimney swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds.

My first known encounter with chimney swifts occurred during summer evenings near the school and Main Street of Bertha, Minn. At the time I didn't know what species the birds were, but I clearly remember observing tens of dozens of them, perhaps in the hundreds, flying above buildings, banking this way and that, and noisily chirping everywhere they flew.

I learned later what species they were, and that they roosted and nested, remarkably, inside of chimneys. I also thought of them as a sort of spectacle; a bird of uncommon nature, possessing qualities similar to bats, secretive if you will, and often only noticed at dawn and dusk.

Upon closer study, I discovered where the birds were coming from and going to. Numerous brick smokestacks, which jutted ominously above many of the early 1900s business buildings, including the oldest part of the school, were the homes of these incredible little birds. I'd watch the swifts enter some of these old chimneys, as if bats returning to their caves in the morning light, while wondering how such places could possibly be suitable for birds.

In thinking about chimney swifts today, I have Jim Humeniuk of Bemidji to thank. A short time ago he took the time to write to me and tell me about watching chimney swifts flying near the waterfront of Bemidji. Jim reported that earlier this summer he observed swifts return to the chimney-roost of a local merchant building. He said , "Just before dusk, they start circling and then they start dropping into the chimney."

Jim added, "It's good."

And he's right. Such displays in Nature are good. Good for all they're worth. Of many things great and small, wildlife viewing is often as good as it gets.

The chimney swift is not a very large bird - only a little over 5 inches long, but its wingspan is about 14 inches. Of the four species of swifts inhabiting North America, the chimney swift is the most widespread swift, not to mention the only species to occur in Minnesota. The extent of the chimney swift's range includes the Great Plains states north from Texas to southern Saskatchewan, and everything east of this line.

Chimney swifts got their name because of their propensity to seek shelter, roost, and nest inside chimneys. While certainly not a misnomer, the bird didn't evolve as a result of human-built chimneys. The fact is, chimney swifts historically roosted and nested inside naturally occurring vertical structures such as hollow standing trees, on the interior walls of caves, and within crevices of other vertical structures such as cliffs.

That withstanding, one can easily imagine that as a result of modern civilization - our towns and cities - and the construction of buildings outfitted with chimneys, the chimney swift found a niche and took full advantage of the increased availability of habitat, albeit urban.

Interestingly, chimney swifts are unable to perch like most birds do. Almost impossibly, they cling effortlessly to the vertical faces of roosting and nesting areas with their long and sharp claws, heads pointing upwards, as comfortably as you or I relax in a recliner.

Thought by many people to be colonial nesters, chimney swifts, though indeed gregarious and commonly roosting together inside chimneys en masse, only one mated pair of swifts actually build a nest, lays eggs, and raises offspring in any given "colony." The rest of the birds are non-breeders.

Chimney swifts are one of the most aerial of birds. Other than while roosting in chimneys, chimney swifts are rarely observed in a flightless state. Not only do these birds catch their insect meals on the wing, they also bathe on the wing by quickly skimming the surface of water. Chimney swifts have even been observed collecting nesting material - small twigs plucked from trees - while in flight.

The simple twig nests they build are held together and affixed to the sides of chimneys and other nesting structures by their sticky saliva. Three-seven white eggs are laid, incubated by the female, and are hatched about three weeks later. The nestlings, which are cared for by both parents, fledge in 30 days.

For sure, here's a bird like no other. Almost completely urbanized, the chimney swift is one of a handful of birds that has truly adapted to living with people. Whether in Crookston or Bemidji, St. Paul or Thief River Falls, look for the delightful chimney swift as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at