Neither a swallow or nighthawk, nor falcon or foe, there exists a bird that resembles a bat and even flies like a bat, yet is more closely related to hummingbirds. The birds I’m referring to are none other than those belonging to a small group of avifauna known collectively as swifts.
North America is home to just four species of swifts: black, Vaux’s, white-throated, and chimney. And it’s the chimney swift, the most widespread swift of them all and occurring nearly everywhere east of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, that calls Minnesota home, too.
If ever you’ve been in a town or city where old buildings’ rooftop chimneys reach to the sky and other chimney/tower-like structures are plentiful, then you’ve surely seen scores of wildly chirping chimney swifts circling in the sky capturing insects.
Chimney swifts are delightful, somewhat mysterious, and very distinctive-looking birds. Belonging to the avian family Apodidae, which the Greek word “apod” means “footless”, are birds characterized by long slender wings and very small feet. Other traits shared by swifts include short slender bodies and inflexible wrists that give the telltale appearance of stiff-looking bat-like wingbeats.
These interesting birds are not very large, only about five inches long from their beaks to the tips of their short stubby tails, although their wingspans, which are about a foot long, give them the appearance of a bigger bird. Chimney swifts, like their relatives the common nighthawk and whip-poor-will, are expert fliers that are especially adept at capturing flying insects on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are so well adapted to flight, that they rarely spend any time stationary except for roosting and incubating eggs.
Prior to urban civilization and buildings with chimneys, chimney swifts nested in tree cavities, hollow trees, and caves -- and some populations still may -- but, like purple martins, chimney swifts rely almost exclusively on human-made structures for nesting, resting, and shelter. With us only during the spring and summertime, chimney swifts spend their winters in the South American countries of Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
As previously mentioned, chimney swifts nest in other structures, too, not just chimneys. Nests are somewhat flimsy and comprised of small twigs woven together and stuck to the vertical surfaces by the birds’ saliva. Their special saliva is a sticky, glue-like substance that holds the nest firmly against structures that include silos, air vents, lighthouses, old barns, cisterns, wells and all kinds of other items and buildings, too.
Interestingly, chimney swifts are not a very well-studied species. Given their nearly all-airborne lifestyle and secretive, inaccessible nesting and resting locations, it’s no wonder these birds are not as well-known as most other species of wild birds are. Yet one can easily view these special birds with a good pair of binoculars and follow them as they fly and capture insects.
All kinds of flying insects are on chimney swifts’ menus. Locations of cities such as Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, and Crookston -- what with the lakes and rivers adjacent to these cities -- provides almost unlimited food, not to mention plenty of nesting habitat. Nearly any insect that flies -- species of flies, beetles, bees and wasps, mayflies, and many other species of flying insect -- is easily captured by the expert flying chimney swifts.
To learn more about chimney swifts, visit the website, www.chimneyswifts.org.
Created by the “Chimney Swift Conservation Association”, the website’s purpose is to, “promote the conservation of Chimney Swifts through public education, preservation of existing habitat, and creation of new nesting and roosting sites.” Indeed, I was surprised to learn that one can build a chimney swift nesting tower that attracts nesting chimney swifts. The website shows how to construct a nesting tower of your own.
Chimney swifts are fascinating and lively birds. That a species of bird has adapted itself to mostly breed and nest in urban centers throughout North America is truly a marvel that’s worthy of our attention and protection as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.