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chimney swift

Chaetura pelagica

What do they look like?

Chimney swifts are small birds with wing length averaging 130.4 mm and tail length averaging 39.1 mm. They weigh approximately 21 grams. The bird's body and head are dark grayish to brownish-gray color on the upper part, slightly paler below. The tail has stiff bristle-like or spiny feather tips. There may be as many as seven tail spines. The eyes of chimney swifts are large. In flight these birds are described as looking like a "cigar with wings." Male and female birds look the same.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    21.33 g
    0.75 oz
  • Average mass
    22.8 g
    0.80 oz
    AnAge

Where do they live?

Chimney swifts are native to the Nearctic and Neotropical regions. They are found in North and South America, ranging from central Alberta to Newfoundland, then south to Florida, the Gulf States, and eastern Texas. They also migrate, spending the winters at the headwaters of the Amazon in western Brazil and eastern Peru. They are sometimes seen in Greenland and Bermuda.

What kind of habitat do they need?

In temperate zones, chimney swifts are found most often in areas settled by humans. In the tropics, they are also found near irrigated agricultural lands and areas inhabited by humans. In natural tropical settings, chimney swifts are found at the edge of rivers bordered by forest or the edge of lowland evergreen forests and secondary growth scrub, and even over the Andean valleys in Peru and Ecuador. They can be found at elevations of 2500 m. (Chantler and Driessens, 2000)

  • Range elevation
    2500 (high) m
    8202.10 (high) ft

How do they reproduce?

Chimney swifts are monogamous; records indicate that some chimney swifts will remain with the same mate for up to eight or nine years. (Dexter, 1969)

Chimney swifts gather together to breed in colonies. Some nesting colonies can be quite large, including thousands of individuals. The exact number of individuals varies depending on the size of the nesting area.

Chimney swifts build their nests in chimneys or hollow trees. The basket-like, half-cup nest is made of sticks secured to the inner wall of a chimney or tree by the hardened saliva of the swifts. The nest is usually placed at least 15.5 m off the ground, but this can vary greatly. A female lays 3 to 7 white, glossy eggs per clutch. Each egg is approximately 2.0 by 1.3 cm. Both parents help incubate the eggs, which means that they will take turns sitting on the nest to keep the eggs warm until they hatch. Nestlings may leave the nest 14 to 19 days after hatching but the first flight typically occurs 30 days after hatching. Chimney swifts probably reach sexual maturity (have the ability to breed) one year after they have left the nest.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Chimney swifts breed once yearly, but occasionally have more than one brood per season.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from May to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
    5
  • Average eggs per season
    4
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    19 to 21 days
  • Range fledging age
    14 to 19 days

Young chimney swifts are helpless when hatched and are fed by both parents.

Sometimes birds other than the breeding pair will help feed and care for young, a behavior called cooperative breeding. Chimney swifts are known to form cooperative breeding groups of three to four birds. These groups may remain as a nesting unit throughout the season, sharing incubation, brooding, and feeding duties. Records indicate that one colony had more than one-third of the breeding pairs form cooperative groups; there were 22 threesomes and 6 foresomes.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

A female chimney swift was recorded to have lived ten years.

How do they behave?

Chimney swifts use both their feet and tail to cling to vertical surfaces. These birds are highly gregarious, and several thousand may be found roosting in large industrial chimneys.

Migration begins in August and continues into early October. No chimney swifts have been recorded in the northern part of their range after October. They return in early spring, usually in April.

Home Range

We do not have information on the home range for chimney swifts at this time.

How do they communicate with each other?

Chimney swift calls are described as a twitter. The most common twitterings are accelerating and decelerating chipping.

Chimney swifts also are likely to use touch and vision in communication. They perceive their environment through vision, hearing, touch, and a weakly developed sense of smell.

What do they eat?

Chimney swifts feed exclusively while in flight. They are primarily insectivores. They forage by hovering over tree branches and catching insects in flight; they take a variety of insect and spider prey. Forty to fifty chimney swifts were recorded hovering at the outer branches or diving through the top branches of a sweetgum tree in pursuit of a particular species of weevil.

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Chimney swifts are occasionally eaten by hawks and falcons.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

As insectivores chimney swifts affect insect populations throughout their range.

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse affects of chimney swifts on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Chimney swifts are valuable as erradicators of insect pests. (Palmer and Fowler, 1975)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Chimney swifts have been described as being as peaceful as doves and always worthy of protection. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but are not listed by CITES, US ESA or the IUCN.

Some more information...

Bird's nest soup is made from the nest of an Asiatic swift, a close relative of the chimney swift. The soup is based on the dried saliva that holds the nest together. Another close relative of chimney swifts are Vaux's swifts, Chaetura vauxi, which occur in the western United States.

From 1918 to 1932, over 1,600 people visited National, Iowa to study the nesting habits of chimney swifts in a tower designed by Althea Sherman and built in 1915 by local carpenters. The bird tower was approximately 8.5 meters high and 0.3 meters square. An artificial chimney, running down the center of the tower, measured approximately half the tower's height. A door and two glass windows allowed people to enter and observe the chimney swifts. After Althea Sherman's death, the tower was moved to the Andy Mountain Camp Ground, Harper's Ferry, Iowa. In the early 1980's, the tower was still standing and was being used for chimney swift studies.

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Janice Pappas (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

References

Chantler, P., G. Driessens. 2000. Swifts: A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World, 2nd. ed. Sussex: Pica Press.

Dexter, R. 1969. Banding and nesting studies of the Chimney Swift, 1944-1968. The Ohio Journal of Science, 69(4): 193-213.

Dexter, R. 1952. Extra-parental cooperation in the nesting of Chimney Swifts. The Wilson Bulletin, 64(3): 133-139.

Dexter, R. 1956. Ten-year life history of a banded Chimney Swift. The Auk, 73: 276-280.

Palmer, E., H. Fowler. 1975. Fieldbook of Natural History, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Whittemore, M. 1981. Chimney Swifts and Their Relatives. Jackson, MS: Nature Books Publishers.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Pappas, J. 2001. "Chaetura pelagica" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 21, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Chaetura_pelagica/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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