Daily Bird nesting season special: Chimney Swift
June 20, 2022
by Genevieve Nuttall
“Look for flying cigars with wings” was the instruction given to me for identifying Chimney Swifts.
At first, I thought that 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. Their breeding range extends across the eastern United States into southeastern Canada. They return to South America for the winter.
If you look only at their behavior, Chimney Swifts can be confused with swallows, which also feed on insects while in flight. The cigar-shaped silhouette of the Chimney Swift is the key identification characteristic.
You can also listen for the peaceful chatter sound they make as they fly around in search for food.
If you watch Chimney Swifts for a while, you’ll notice that they never land. Chimney Swifts do not perch like most birds. 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.
In Connecticut, sections of Willimantic, Farmington, and Woodbury have been identified as Important Bird Areas for Chimney Swifts because they host hundreds of roosting birds. If you have no luck finding Swifts elsewhere, you are sure to find them in these towns.
But as the eBird map for June 2022, shown here, indicates, they are widespread in Connecticut.
Old houses, however, are now being removed and replaced by designs with modern chimneys that don’t 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.
You can help by keeping old chimneys uncapped and having them cleaned only before or after the nesting season.
Genevieve Nuttall is a former Osprey Nation coordinator for Connecticut Audubon.