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Chimney Swifts

Were there chimney swifts before chimneys? Of course! It might surprise you, but historically, chimney swifts nested in hollow trees, cliff faces, caves, and the like. But things changed for the chimney swifts when Europeans settled the area and built homes with chimneys.

Chimney Swifts in North Dakota
I was recently perusing Robert Stewart’s Breeding Birds of North Dakota and ran across the section about chimney swifts. Stewart cited records of them apparently nesting in hollow trees in Pembina County in the late 1800s, and near Grafton in 1915. He also noted that from 1970-1972 they were observed in the vicinity of a hollow tree along the Sheyenne River in Richland County.

Around the time he published his book in 1975, they were mainly found in cities and towns in the state and noted nests in the chimneys of homes in Wahpeton, Devils Lake, Argusville, Harwood, and Jamestown. They were also nesting in the walls of abandoned houses and sheds in Minnewaukan, Grafton, and Grand Forks.

Chimney swifts are dark gray-brown, cigar-shaped birds, with long, curved wings, and a short tail. They are about 5-6 inches long with a wingspan of 10-12 inches, and are often observed in the mornings and evenings as they fly overhead feeding on insects.

Chimney swifts spend most of their lives in the air, and they are unable to perch. As a result, they resort to clinging to vertical surfaces such as that of a hollow tree, cave, chimney, or similar surface to roost or in nest.

Breeding Range
The breeding range for chimney swifts is roughly east of a line from western North Dakota southward to Texas. Winters are spent in South America. They will typically raise one brood of 3-5 young in the summer.

The nests, constructed on the inner surface of a chimney or other surface, are composed of small twigs woven together and held in place with the aid of a gluey saliva.

Population Decline
Chimney swifts have been declining at a rate of about 2% per year, with a decline of about 67% from 1966-2019. One of the factors in their decline is the lack of suitable nesting sites — for example, the few chimneys in modern homes. Plus, some chimneys are covered, preventing the chimney swifts from entering them.

So be on the lookout for these interesting birds this summer. If you get the opportunity, take a little extra time to see if you can learn where they are roosting or nesting.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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