The Naturalist's CornerWritten by Don Hendershot
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No, I don’t mean fly around in a circle above a chimney or smokestack before disappearing into it. I mean clear your calendar and grab the kids and head to Asheville’s Grove Arcade this Friday (Sept. 25 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.) for their annual “Swift Night Out” and watch as chimney swifts swarm the skies above the arcade before disappearing into the chimneys to roost.
Renowned ornithologist and field guide author Roger Tory Peterson described the chimney swift as “a cigar with wings.” It’s an apt description for this long-winged, five-inch, dark grayish-brown flying machine. If not nesting, the chimney swift spends its entire day on the wing. It chases down aerial insects, laps water, bathes and even gathers nesting materials on the wing.
The chimney swift’s short legs and tiny feet with strong hooked claws are no good for perching or standing but added to its short, stiff tail, they are perfect for clinging to vertical surfaces. Before Europeans made landfall on eastern North America those vertical surfaces included hollow trees and caves.
But with our ancestor’s penchant for clearing and building, homes, factories and businesses with chimneys and smokestacks galore began to dot the landscape and the swifts quickly began to utilize them. The chimney swift’s population and distribution mirrored the urbanization of the eastern United States. They now nest from Florida to Canada and as far west as the foothills of the Rockies.
Man giveth and man taketh away
In recent years the chimney swift population across the eastern U.S. has been in decline. Scientists are not certain of the reason or reasons for this decline but many attribute it to the loss of appropriate roosting sites. The continued clearing of forests takes away hollow trees. Today’s homes with central air and heat either have no chimneys or those chimneys are covered to keep the “pests” out. And, be it good or bad, those industrial smokestacks and chimneys are also disappearing. Since chimney swifts are solitary nesters, the loss of roosts means the loss of nests. For more information regarding the plight of chimney swifts today check out www.chimneyswifts.org.
While chimney swifts are not communal nesters, nesting pairs will tolerate non-breeding swifts in the same roost. And as fall approaches these roosts grow and grow as swifts mass for their annual trek to their wintering grounds in South America.
Swifts are diurnal migrants and large flocks wing their way south every autumn with an eye out for good roosting sites. The Grove Arcade has traditionally attracted thousands of these weary travelers on their way to Peru.