June 21, 2018
by Genevieve Nuttall
“Look for flying cigars with wings” was the instruction given to me for identifying Chimney Swifts.
At first, I thought that field description was a joke. After seeing a Chimney Swift for the first time, however, I realized that they really do look like flying cigars with wings. Now, I use this simple identification trick to locate Chimney Swifts across Connecticut in the late spring and summer.
Chimney Swifts are aerial insectivores with a round, cigar-shaped body and long, curved wings. They are grayish-brown overall, with a black tint around the eyes and small black bill. If you look only at their behavior, Chimney Swifts can be confused with swallow species that are feeding on insects in flight. The cigar-shaped silhouette of the Chimney Swift is the key characteristic to look for to identify these birds in the air.
You can also listen for the peaceful chatter sound of Chimney Swifts as they fly around in search for food.
If you watch Chimney Swifts for an extended period time, you will notice that they never land! Chimney Swifts do not perch like most birds. Instead, they stop flying only when roosting on vertical surfaces or when on a nest.
Another unique aspect of this species is its breeding habitat. Historically, Chimney Swifts made nests on cliffs or in caves and trees. With the construction of houses that came with the colonization of North America, Chimney Swifts found an ideal new habitat: chimneys. Now they congregate in suburban and urban areas where chimneys are abundant. They roost in these structures at night and make nests along the interior of the chimney.
The breeding range of Chimney Swifts extends across the eastern United States into southeastern Canada. After breeding season ends, they return to South America for the winter.
To find Chimney Swifts in Connecticut this summer, look up to the sky! There is a good chance you will see them flying high in the air around densely populated areas. In the evening, you may notice large groups of these birds coming to a chimney to roost.
Sections of Willimantic, Farmington, and Woodbury have been identified as Important Bird Areas for Chimney Swifts because they host hundreds of roosting birds so if you have no luck finding Swifts elsewhere, you are sure to find them in these towns!
Chimney Swifts greatly benefitted from the establishment of urban areas with European-style houses and brick chimneys. Their population likely increased during the urbanization of North America due to the wide accessibility of suitable chimneys.
Old houses, however, are now being removed and replaced by designs with modern chimneys that do not provide adequate nesting habitat for Swifts. The IUCN lists the Chimney Swift as a Near Threatened species with rapidly declining populations. If the population continues to decrease at the same rate as it has been in past years, the status of the species may become Vulnerable.
To prevent further decline in the Chimney Swift population, you can help by keeping old chimneys uncapped and having them cleaned only before or after the nesting season.
Genevieve Nuttall, the former Osprey Nation coordinator for the Connecticut Audubon Society, is now bird conservation programs associate for Audubon Connecticut, a chapter of the National Audubon Society.
Chimney Swift photos by Jim McCulloch (top) and USNPS. Photo of Genevieve Nuttall by Christina O’Neill.