The Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), is truly a bird of the air, spending its days speeding aloft on thin, sickle-shaped wings, catching flying insects for food. This species, though declining in numbers, is still a fairly common sight in our area in summer. The only swift in our area, it is often seen overhead in towns with a good supply of uncapped chimneys, where it now nests and roosts almost exclusively. Large hollow trees, now in short supply, were originally used.
Swifts are so adapted for a life on the wing that they are not capable of perching upright; they do cling to vertical surfaces, but generally only at their nest and roost sites. They even gather the small dead twigs they use for nest material in flight, by breaking them off of the tree with their feet as they cruise by. This species has been recorded flying as high as 7,000 feet.
Swifts are often confused with swallows, due to their similarity in form. But the thin, pointed wings and rapid flight of both of these groups of birds are not indicators of any close kinship between them, but only of the necessity of such a form for speed and agility on the wing. The closest relatives of swifts are the hummingbirds, while swallows are classed in the order Passeriformes, which encompasses most landbird species. This means that swallows are more closely related to crows, for example, than they are to swifts.
The Chimney Swift’s plumage is fairly unremarkable in color, a sooty gray that fades to a lighter gray on the chin and throat. None of our swallows are as dark underneath as this, but these swifts are best identified by shape, and by their quicker, stiffer wingbeats than the more fluid wingstrokes of swallows. The Chimney Swift’s distinctively stubby, cylindrical body has led to its being called a “cigar with wings” with wings are even thinner than swallows’ wings, and with the bend of the wing closer to the body.
As would seem fitting for such an accomplished flier, Chimney Swifts travel a great distance to their winter home: the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile. Where they spend the winter was completely unknown to science until 1944, when leg bands from swifts banded in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Illinois, Ontario, and Connecticut were recovered from a trader who obtained them from natives in the Amazon basin of eastern Peru.
You can help provide this fascinating bird with nesting and roosting sites by leaving hollow, but safe trees on your property or even building your own nesting tower.