Take part in an environmental research project: where are the Chimney Swifts? – great summer project for the kids.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  July 27, 2012  Would you like to be a small part of a scientific survey that will help determine why a small bird called a Chimney Swift is slowly just disappearing?

More than 90% of the Chimney Swift population has just disappeared and environmental scientists want to know how many there are left and where they go at night.

They have a pretty good idea but they need some help.

Chimney Swifts make their homes in chimneys in urban neighbourhoods throughout Ontario and are experiencing steep population declines across North America. Bird Studies Canada is looking for volunteers to help search for nesting locations.

Sootey coloured bird that make a chittering sound that is unmistakeable.  When there are hundreds of them in the same area the sound gets quite loud.

The Chimney Swift is a small, sooty-coloured bird that makes its home in open brick chimneys in small to large towns and cities. It can be observed in most urban areas, flying overhead in quick, sporadic movements, making a high-pitched chittering call.

The Chimney Swift is now federally and provincially designated as a Threatened species. The species was recently highlighted in the State of Canada’s Birds 2012 report as requiring urgent attention.

Swifts seem to want to roost at night in large chimneys.  Here we see some of the birds getting ready to enter a chimney.

Since European settlement, Chimney Swifts have preferred to live near people, nesting in chimneys rather than the cavernous trees they once inhabited. You are most likely to observe swifts using larger chimneys attached to buildings such as hospitals, churches, and schools. Some chimneys are roosting sites where swifts gather in large numbers. By late summer, you will see the number of birds at roosts increasing, with some sites offering spectacular displays of hundreds, or even thousands, of birds entering a chimney at nightfall. Then, suddenly, Chimney Swifts depart, migrating south for the winter.

The Swift is known as an aerial acrobatic bird – it darts about as it catches mosquitoes, a main source of its food.

The Chimney Swift is an aerial acrobat that belongs to a special group of birds called ‘aerial insectivores.’ These birds forage on insects, such as mosquitoes, while in flight.  The State of Canada’s Birds report notes that aerial insectivores are declining more steeply than any other group of birds. These declines are likely caused by a combination of factors, in Canada and in their wintering areas, including reductions in insect numbers, habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change.

Conservation Halton and Bird Studies Canada have partnered to learn more about the declines and their causes in Halton.

They are looking for help pinpointing Chimney Swift nesting locations in Halton.

People laying on the ground watching Swifts circle a chimney and begin to descend inside where they stay the night.

If you`re looking for something practical to do that relates to the environment give some thought to getting into the family vehicle and driving around places that have large chimneys and watching to see if there are birds flying around the chimney, dipping in and out of it.

Have some paper and pencil at hand and note the date, the time and the location.  If you can, take a picture as well and send a report off to https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/OntarioSwiftWatch or email OntarioSwiftWatch@birdscanada.org.

“Whether you see a single Chimney Swift or several of them entering a chimney, it is important that we know about that chimney,” states Kristyn Richardson, Stewardship Biologist for Bird Studies Canada. “Ontario supports more than 50 per cent of the Canadian population of Chimney Swifts, so there are thousands of sites that have yet to be discovered.”

For more information about swifts, how to look for them, and how to help them, visit their website at www.birdscanada.org/research/speciesatrisk/chsw or the Ontario SwiftWatch Facebook page (www.fb.com/ontarioswift).


 What is a Chimney Swift? Chimney Swifts are small, sooty-coloured birds that make their homes primarily in chimneys. They are found in small to large urban areas. Chimney Swifts feed on flying insects, and spend most of their time in the air.

How do you identify a Chimney Swift? Chimney Swifts have a unique cigar-shaped body, long narrow pointed wings, and a very short tail. They nest and roost in chimneys. Their nests are built of small twigs secured to the chimney wall. They can be seen and heard flying above the urban core, or near larger institutions or industrial buildings. They do not perch on trees or wires, but cling to the interior walls of chimneys.

 Is this species in trouble? The Chimney Swift is federally and provincially designated as a Threatened species. Its population has declined by more than 90 per cent over the last four decades. It was recently highlighted in the State of Canada’s Birds report (www.stateofcanadasbirds.org) as a species requiring urgent attention.

 I think there might be Chimney Swifts in my chimney … now what? Chimney Swifts are relatively clean and quiet house guests. They are often mistaken for bats or other species. The Ontario SwiftWatch webpage, (www.birdscanada.org/research/speciesatrisk/chsw), includes two factsheets that will help you determine whether you have Chimney Swifts, and what your next steps should be. Please see “Are There Chimney Swifts in Your Chimney” and “How to be a Good Chimney Swift Host.”

Dates to remember

  • Swifts arrive in Ontario: Early May
  • Nesting: June 9 to 25
  • Eggs: three to five eggs hatch, 20 days after laying
  • Fledging: 30 days after hatch
  • Roosting: July 7 to 23
  • Swifts leave Ontario: Mid-September to early October

What have we learned so far? Bird Studies Canada used Ontario SwiftWatch data to identify the Chimney Swift habitat requirements. We found that Chimney Swifts prefer to use larger and longer chimneys, attached to non-residential buildings. We also found that artificial towers do not provide a suitable environment for nesting swifts, which is likely why artificial towers in Canada have not been successful.

How can I help? We ask that urban residents watch and listen for Chimney Swifts. If you see them or hear their chittering, look for any nearby open (uncapped, unguarded) chimneys, and take a few minutes to watch for swifts entering or exiting. You can watch any time of day, but will have a much better chance if you return at sunset when the swifts are entering for the night. If you see swifts using a chimney, please tell us through the Ontario SwiftWatch online data form, (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/OntarioSwiftWatch). Whether you know about one chimney, or 100, they are all important in helping us to better understand this unique member of our urban communities!

Kathy Jones, Ontario Volunteer Coordinator, can be reached at  volunteer@birdscanada.org, 1-888-448-2473 ext. 124 (toll-free).




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