Every spring and summer, aerial acrobats known as chimney swifts return to their breeding grounds in the eastern part of the country, ranging from here in New York, as far south as Arkansas and northern Florida.
Once here, these beautiful creatures make their homes inside chimneys and other vertical structures. If you hear a fluttering noise from your fireplace, it could be a chimney swift raising its young in your flue.
So, what are chimney swifts, why do they roost in your chimney, and what should you do if one takes up residence with you? We’ve got the answers you’re looking for.
What Are Chimney Swifts?
Chimney swifts are known as small aerial daredevils. In early summer, these neo-tropical migratory birds return to the eastern U.S. from South America, where they stay in the winter. They used to nest mostly in old hollow trees and caves, but as trees get cut down and buildings replace, they’ve taken to chimneys for refuge.
Swifts have a unique style of flying. They flutter, hover, and dart around like small missiles. In fact, they spend most of their lives flying, even bathing and eating in flight. And they consume nearly one-third of their body weight daily from flying insects and spiders. This means they’re very good at ridding your home and barn of mosquitoes, biting flies, spiders, and termites.
What Do Chimney Swifts Look Like?
Swifts are closely related to hummingbirds, looking similar to them, but bigger. They are easily recognized by their long, curved wings with black to dark brown plumage. Here are some other distinctive features they possess:
- Short, hooked bill
- Tiny, hard-to-notice feet
- Black, gray, and white feathers
- A narrow band of pinkish color under their wings
- Horizontal barring on the sides of their breast area
- Forked tail
- Dark eyes
- White eye rings
Can You Drive Swifts Out of Your Chimney?
Swifts are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which means attempting to expel them from your home is illegal. The law states that it’s a violation to hunt, capture, injure, remove, or relocate any migratory bird – including their eggs and nests. As a result, chimney swifts and their young enjoy official protection from the federal government.
But if you see them living in your chimney, don’t worry. They’re neither destructive nor harmful and will depart on their own accord as the weather cools.
That said, you’ll want to do your best to keep them out. As a precautionary measure, ensure your damper is always closed when your fireplace isn’t in use and invest in a well-fitted, reliable chimney cap with a protective screen too. Both measures help prevent the birds from entering your home.
What Are Signs a Chimney Swift Is in My Chimney?
While chimney swifts are a beautiful sight and helpful for eating bugs, they can also be a nuisance. Not sure if you have a swift problem in your flue? Here are a few clearcut signs:
- Unpleasant Smell: You may notice an unpleasant smell around your fireplace when chimney swifts are present. Like any other critter, they need to defecate, which can leave your chimney system smelling and stained.
- Mess: Chimney swifts are not harmful to humans or pets, but their nesting materials and excrement can create their own problems. They leave behind droppings and feathers in the chimney and fireplace, which can be difficult to clean up. If you don’t have your chimney swept regularly, this debris will build up, creating blockages and fire hazards.
- Noise: Chimney swifts have a distinctive call, so if you hear a chittering or chirping sound seemingly close by, it could be the baby swifts begging for food. They have a very shrill call that can be annoying if you’re not used to it.
When Do Chimney Swifts Migrate South?
Baby swifts take their first flight about 30 days from hatching. Most often, these birds will depart in October, but it can be sooner or a bit later, depending on the year and conditions. That said, you can typically count on them being out before the holiday season really kicks into full gear.
Once ready, they’ll gather at the end of the breeding season in communal feeding sites to store energy before migrating to their wintering grounds in the Amazon basin of Peru.
What Should Be Done After Chimney Swifts Leave?
Once swifts leave, any abandoned nests will need to be removed – which means it’s time to schedule an inspection and, likely, a chimney sweeping.
And since the swifts were able to find their way in earlier in the year, it’s likely your chimney cap needs some looking into, as well. Ask your sweep to install a new one that’s built from durable materials and custom-fitted to your chimney.
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