ALWAYS IN SEASON: Chimney swifts enjoy urban haunts

Evening meetings kept me in downtown Grand Forks last week, and I got reacquainted with one of the city's mystery birds, the chimney swift. Chimney swifts are easy to spot in the center of the city, especially at twilight. They usually occur in s...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

Evening meetings kept me in downtown Grand Forks last week, and I got reacquainted with one of the city's mystery birds, the chimney swift.

Chimney swifts are easy to spot in the center of the city, especially at twilight. They usually occur in small groups, twittering loudly.

This makes them noticeable -- but not well-known.

The chimney swift is sometimes referred to as "a flying cigar." The resemblance is superficial at best, but it does occur to me every time I see a swift.

Don't look for a brightly colored bird. Indeed, swifts are sooty black, as befits their name.


Swifts are easily mistaken for swallows because they share a love of flying insects. Swallows are elegant birds, rather like fighter aircraft, while swifts are heavier, bulkier and more like tankers.

Swallows seem more elongated, swifts stubbier.

In any case, swallows and swifts are not closely related. Hummingbirds are the swifts' closest relatives in the bird world.

Like hummingbirds, swifts are skilled aerialists.

While hummingbirds seem to hover with such rapid movement that their wing beats are not discernible, swifts give the impression of moving one wing at a time. This is an illusion, however, caused by the birds' frequent turns and dives, which mean that the viewer's perspective changes rapidly -- more rapidly than human eyes can follow easily.

Swifts seem constantly in motion. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing one at rest.

That's because they typically roost in chimneys or other enclosed places, hence the name.

Chimney swifts built their nests in chimneys, too, or sometimes in tight quarters in abandoned buildings.


Before chimneys, swifts nested in hollow trees, and some still do.

Indeed, hollow trees may be a refuge for swifts. As chimneys fall into disuse and are taken down, the birds may return to their earlier habitat.

It does appear that swifts have declined over most of their range, including our area.

Before European settlement, swifts were probably only thinly distributed across eastern North America. Robert Stewart wrote (in Breeding Birds of North Dakota, Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, 1975), "Before the arrival of most white settlers in the state, chimney swifts were largely restricted to areas of mature timber." He cites records from Pembina, in the state's extreme northeastern corner.

Timber was rare on the Great Plains, of course, and so were chimney swifts. Their range extended to the forest along the Red and Sheyenne rivers, in the Devils Lake area and in the Missouri River Valley.

But their numbers increased as settlement spread, and towns meant chimneys. Chimneys were essential for heating in winter but they were largely unused in summer, when the swifts nested.

Chimneys suited swifts.

First, they were vertical structures, open on the inside, like hollow trees.


Second, they occurred in patches, like forests.

So -- like the humans who built the chimneys -- swifts could live close together while each pair had its own residence, one pair to a chimney.

"The Birds of Manitoba" (Manitoba Naturalists Society, Winnipeg, 2003) describes how swifts expanded in Manitoba, and this process was likely repeated in North Dakota.

"Chimney swifts evidently occupied Manitoba towns soon after they were founded: By 1890, they were abundant in Winnipeg and common at Portage la Prairie, with small numbers elsewhere...

During the 1970s and 1980s, small numbers of chimney swifts occurred in most southern Manitoba towns with populations of more than about 2000 people."

But most of these have disappeared, and that seems to be the case in North Dakota, too, including Grand Forks.

My sense is that chimney swifts are less abundant now than they were when we moved to Grand Forks almost 30 years ago. But this may be because I spend far less time in downtown Grand Forks now.

The Grand Forks County checklist rates chimney swifts as fairly common in spring and summer and common in fall. The checklist for Turtle River State Park rates them as rare.

Of course, this is consistent with the swifts' preference for urban haunts, represented by Grand Forks.

Despite their visibility in urban areas, swifts remain little-known. Apparently they are frustrating subjects for ornithologists, those scientists who study birds.

Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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