Thursday, April 1, 2010

Swiftly they fly

One of my favorite summer birds is back in town. The little Chimney Swifts blew in over the weekend. I first heard them in my chimney on Saturday night. Sunday, I saw the pair flying over the backyard.

I'm guessing that swifts were named for the way they fly - very swiftly. They fly like a bird out of hell, as if the devil were right on their tail feathers. And they twitter as they fly. Not the silent, keyboard kind of twittering but the noisy, chattering twitter of a bird that just seems happy to be alive.

Swifts around the world have declining populations primarily because of loss of habitat. They need a rough, vertical surface on which to roost and to build their nests. They have very weak legs that are not meant to support perching but those feet can cling to rough surfaces like the bricks in a chimney. In the past, when most houses that were built had chimneys that were open to the sky and to the birds, the little Chimney Swift flourished. But today, most houses either don't have chimneys or they have excluders to keep the birds out. Not my house though.

Our house was built in the '70s and the chimney is open to the sky. Most of our neighbors with houses built in the same period have since added the excluders to keep birds out of their chimneys, but we welcome them. We enjoy sharing our house with the little birds. Their arrival is the signal to close the flue, and their chattering throughout spring, summer, and early fall is a happy sound and is one of the things that makes my house "home."

Admirers of the Chimney Swift are fostering a movement to encourage homeowners to build appropriate towers in their backyards to provide a place for the birds to roost and nest. These towers are not yet as popular as Purple Martin condominiums or bluebird boxes, but as people become more familiar with the swifts and with the work that they do to clear the skies of flying insects, perhaps we will see more of the towers in backyards around the country. As an admirer of Chimney Swifts myself, I can only hope so.

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