Those Amazing Chimney Swifts!
Chimney Swifts are amazing little birds and do just about everything in the air. They feed on the wing by catching thousands of small flying insects every day and even collect nesting materials in the air by snapping small twigs from branch tips. Arriving to North America in March and returning to their winter range in the Amazon Basin of Peru in October and November, Chimney Swifts cover thousands of miles every year. These 5-inch black birds have been clocked at level flight speeds of 145 miles per hour (WOW!).
Originally, Chimney Swifts nested in hollow trees, clinging to the sides of the hollow trunk, and raising their young in shallow, nests of small twigs glued together with the birds’ own saliva. After European settlers began cutting down the forests and eliminating the hollow trees, the Swifts adapted by moving into chimneys instead.
Chimney Swifts are one of the more challenging avian species to raise and care for in captivity. Nestlings and young fledglings are hand-fed every 20-30 minutes. The feeding increments increase to every hour as they grow and, since these birds will not feed on their own in captivity, this hand-feeding schedule must be maintained for a minimum of 12 hours a day until they are ready for release at about 5-6 weeks of age. And these little guys have voracious appetites! Their feathers are very delicate, and improper feeding techniques can cause serious damage to their plumage. As you can imagine, this is quite demanding, and Interns Katie Stubblefield and Ashley Rozelle-Gault, and the Alabama Wildlife Center’s devoted volunteers rose to the challenge.
When they are ready to begin flying, the Chimney Swift fledglings go outside to a special cage in the Solarium. The walls of the spacious cage have horizontally grooved wooden panels that allow the fledglings to perch vertically, since Chimney Swifts are unable to perch on branches like most other birds. The cage is also furnished with a wooden “chimney” box where the young birds can rest and feed as they continue to grow. Because the Swifts have to be hand fed until the day they are released, we have to train them to come back to the chimney box when someone enters the cage to give them their hourly feeding. The young birds quickly learn that even if they are flying around exercising, they must hurry back to the chimney box at feeding time and line up to be fed. (See photo below.)
The last Chimney Swifts of the 2005 baby season were released on September 7th into an existing colony which occupies two chimneys and a roosting tower built especially for Chimney Swifts at our facility. They were greeted and accepted by the colony with “open wings!” Although we’ll miss their cheerful chatter and sooty faces peeking over the edge of their wooden chimney box as we approach at feeding times, we can enjoy watching them swoop and sail effortlessly overhead until migration.