Chimneys and their Swifts

IMG_7807Brick chimneys are things of beauty, old utilitarian architecture made pleasing by shape and material. Bricks, made of clay, sand, shale, and heat, have a particularly earthy appeal.

I’m posting this today to remind us of the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) overhead now. I see and hear them regularly both on top of the Harbor Hill Moraine and elsewhere in the city. Do you? Their distinctive calls usually alert me to look up. I call it a “chittering.” Here’s a sample from Cornell, where they call it a “twitter.”

Swifts — we have one species here on the East Coast; there are about 100 species world-wide — are distinctive in flight too, stiff-winged (rather bat-like to some observers) and short-tailed. R.T. Peterson famously described Chimney Swifts as cigars with wings. They fly all day, gobbling up insects, but really seem to get noticed during these late twilights of June. They look quite dark because we usually see them in silhouette, but are actually tan-brown up-close.

But I’ve never been very close and don’t have a single photo to share. Chimney Swifts can’t perch. They cling to vertical surfaces, and nest inside chimneys, air vents, and hollow trees. As America central-heated and then rusted-out, the number of both domestic and industrial chimneys dropped substantially, having a detrimental effect on the species’ population, but the city still provides them with their namesake structures.

I don’t know if the chimney above, located in Red Hook, is home to anybody. The only actual chimney I’ve ever seen Swifts come out of was located in Beacon, NY. Yet the birds are almost always above us this time of year, so they’re roosting and nesting somewhere near…

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