By Anita Carpenter
In the fading twilight of an autumn evening, chimney swifts orchestrate a performance worthy of our attention. After a long day of catching high-flying insects, the five-inch, cigar-shaped black birds with the short, stiff aerodynamically swept-back wings congregate around a favorite chimney. Several, fifty or perhaps a few hundred, chimney swifts circle together in preparation for a spectacular descent into their nighttime roost.
Around and around they fly, a swirling whirlpool of swifts, some twittering, most silent. Which swift will be first to break rank and enter the chimney? Not one seems to be in a hurry. Suddenly one bird dives steeply at the chimney, appearing to enter but actually passes close behind and rejoins the flock. Two, three, five birds follow in quick succession, but not one drops into the chimney. Some swifts break free of the whirlpool and go out to feed. Soon they rejoin the flock. Additional swifts arrive. The swarm gets bigger. More birds dive toward the chimney but veer off at the last moment. Suddenly something spooks the flock. The birds disperse in all directions, twittering excitedly as they depart. The sky is devoid of swifts, but not for long.
As twilight deepens, the swifts return and the circling recommences. The swarm grows but the circle’s diameter appears to be getting smaller. The flock seems more focused on its objective: to enter the chimney. Another bird passes at the chimney. Not yet. More circling. Eventually a swift dives toward the chimney, repositions its wings up over its back and thus losing speed and altitude, it drops toward the opening. Not quite yet. The bird quickly changes direction, resumes flight and rejoins the circling flock. Other birds drop toward the chimney but are reluctant to enter. Finally a daring swift approaches, folds its wings over its back and gently flutters, feet first, into the chimney. Instantly another swift follows. Then another. The descent is on but not all swifts are eager to enter. Some pass closely and veer off. Others continue to circle. This scene reminds me of youngsters who should be in bed but find excuses to dawdle.
Darkness is almost upon us. Then as if a secret signal has been given, the swifts drop into the chimney, one right after another. This is the moment I’ve been patiently waiting for, the grand finale. The swifts enter so quickly it seems as if a giant vacuum is sucking them in. I’ve been counting the birds as they enter the chimney but they’re disappearing so fast that I’ve lost count.
During this frenzied but somehow orderly descent, it’s amazing that the swifts don’t bump into each other. One can only imagine the great flutter of wings and commotion that must be occurring within the chimney as each swift finds a spot and settles in for the night. With so many birds in such a limited space, the birds must be stacked like overlapping shingles. It’s no wonder that no bird wants to be first into the roost and perhaps at the bottom of the mass.
The performance is over for another night. The skies are silent. In a few days, the ever-growing flock fails to return for its crepuscular performance. They’ve taken their act farther south, pausing along their migration route, delighting those who care to watch, before eventually arriving in South America to spend the winter.
Not until late March will Wisconsin again be blessed with the graceful sky dances and twittering music as chimney swifts ply the skies in search of food and each other.
This article has been reprinted from The Lakeflyer with permission from Winnebago Audubon and Anita Carpenter. I hope you are motivated to look up to the evening sky to see if chimney swifts frequent your neighborhood. In late August/early September, Winnebago Audubon is planning to hold a Swift Night Out for the community to attend. Volunteers are also needed to help locate chimneys in which the swifts are roosting. For more information visit www.winaudubon.org or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Winnebago Audubon and Oshkosh Bird Club in partnership with the Oshkosh Public Library invite you to a presentation on chimney swifts. The program will be given by Bill Mueller, Director and staff ornithologist at the Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory, on Wednesday, July 23rd at 7:00 pm at the Oshkosh Public Library. Learn about chimney swift ecology and distribution, factors involved in their population decline, and how we can effectively work for conservation of this species. ν
Anita Carpenter is a retired pharmacist with a passion for the natural world. Her love of nature is expressed through her writing and originally designed quilts