Chimney Swifts have feet so small that they can’t perch. Instead, they cling to the sides of vertical structures. Swifts used to live in the giant trees of old-growth forests, but after these were cleared, they adapted to live in chimneys. Today, that habitat is disappearing, too. Volunteers and scientists hope to preserve mega-roost chimneys, where thousands of swifts gather to form “swiftnados”, and supplement them with swift towers.
Searching Out Mega-Roosts of Chimney Swifts
By Selena Seay-Reynolds
This is BirdNote.
It’s just before dusk in Birmingham, Alabama, and Greg Harber is riding his bike to one of his favorite chimneys just in time to see a swiftnado!
Greg: So right now there are probably, I would say 225 to 250 at the moment. Now they're starting to come in a little bit more. OK. So now we’re easily at 500 birds right there circling overhead.
Greg’s a volunteer for SwiftWatch, a project that helps count Chimney Swifts. These small, brown birds look a lot like sparrows, with one important difference--their feet are so small they can’t perch. Instead, they cling to the sides of vertical structures.
Swifts used to live in the giant trees of old-growth forests, but after these were cleared, the birds came to live in chimneys. Since the 1960s, however, most houses aren’t built with chimneys.
Greg looks for mega-roost chimneys, where there can be thousands of swifts.
Lianne Kozcur is Conservation & Science Director at Alabama Audubon. She uses the locations of the mega-chimneys to preserve them and hopes swift-watchers can expand into more rural areas.
Lianne: That's just a little bit heartbreaking to me to think about what happens if it's some small town in north Alabama that maybe just doesn't have a lot of chimneys. If there's one or two, and one gets demolished, where are these birds roosting at night now?
One solution has been constructing swift towers: free-standing, wooden chimneys, one foot across and 12 feet tall. But these can house only about a hundred birds each. So they need volunteers to identify the chimneys that swifts frequent the most and to protect these.
Lianne: If you've ever seen a swiftnado of, like, two to three thousand birds, I don't know how you don't get hooked on it. I feel like it should just be one of the natural wonders of the world.
For BirdNote, I’m Selena Seay-Reynolds.
Senior Producer: John Kessler
Production Manager: Allison Wilson
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Producer: Mark Bramhill
Editor: Ari Daniel
Producer: Selena Seay-Reynolds
Field Recordings by Selena Seay-Reynolds
© 2020 BirdNote December 2020 Narrator: Selena Seay-Reynolds
ID# CHSW-02-2020-12-29 CHSW-02