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Bird Notes | Hummingbird, chimney swift activity up as summer dwindles

Migrating chimney swifts gather at dusk prior to entering a chimney to roost for the night.
Migrating chimney swifts gather at dusk prior to entering a chimney to roost for the night. For The Sun News

Although a quick look at the calendar shows summer barely two months old, summer is over for many of our feathered friends.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have begin their annual southward treks and many of us are enjoying the antics of these avian jewels while they take advantage of backyard flowers and feeders as they make their way south to more tropical winter quarters.

Last weekend, another reminder of the season’s passing came in the form of a sizeable flock of chimney swifts.

Close cousins to the hummingbirds — they both share a similar neck muscle arrangement as well as a particular enzyme — chimney swift migration in spring and fall parallels that of our ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Saturday evening at dusk I watched with the same feeling of wonder as some 250 of these amazing little birds made their way, chittering and twittering, into the chimney here.

Each year for the past 46 years a family has bred in this structure, but during each fall migration it is absolutely incredible to see the number of birds that avail themselves of this resource for the night.

Chimney swifts, like hummingbirds, are New World inhabitants. And, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, they are true South Carolina birds, with the species being first named to science by Linnaeus with our fair state as the Type Locality (place where the first specimen was described from) based on the work of naturalist Mark Catesby here in the early 1700s.

These small birds, sometimes described as “flying cigars,” probably nested and roosted originally in hollow trees. As colonial settlement occurred and forests were cleared, they adapted to use chimneys.

In recent years, their overall population appears to be in a state of decline (as is the case with too many of our Neo-tropical migrant birds) due to loss of available habitat. In the swifts’ case, the result of less chimneys overall in recent years as well as many folks capping their chimney structures prevents the birds access to critical nest and roost sites.

Chimney swifts are obligate insectivores (they only eat insects) and as such are highly beneficial in helping to control insect populations. They spend most of their time foraging on the wing. When not foraging, they do not perch as other birds do, but cling to vertical surfaces such as the walls of chimneys.

You can assist in the study of these wonderful little birds and their migratory behavior by participating in A Swift Night Out, a citizen science project sponsored by Driftwood Wildlife Association. Visit their website at www.chimneyswifts.org or contact me for more information on how you can participate.

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