May 14 2014

Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings

Published by at 7:15 am under Bird Behavior,Songbirds

Chimney swift flying in Austin, Texas (photo by Jim McCullough, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons)

The chimney swifts came back to town in April from their winter homes in South America. In this week's hot weather they're zooming high above the rooftops eating insects and courting.  If they'd only hold still you could see they look like cigars with wings.  Here are some fun facts about them.

Chimney swifts are "songbirds" but their song is a dry chittering sound, loudest when they're courting.

They are small. Stretch out your fingers. From the tip of your thumb to the tip of your pinky finger is the wingspan of a chimney swift. If you have big hands, your hand is wider than the bird.

Chimney swifts can't perch on a horizontal surface. Their legs+feet are shaped like garden claws so they can only cling upright to the inside of a chimney or hollow tree.

True to their name they nest in chimneys, constructing a half-moon cup of twigs glued to the wall with their sticky saliva. To gather sticks they grab dead twigs in flight with their feet and transfer them to their bills to carry home.  I have never seen a chimney swift carrying a twig.  It's something to look forward to.

Though most mating occurs at the nest, chimney swifts can mate in the air!

The female lays 4-5 eggs which both parents incubate for 19 days.  Even though the chicks are born naked with closed eyes their feet are so well-developed that they can cling to an upright surface on the day after they hatch.

For such a small bird, chimney swifts live an amazingly long time, averaging about 4.6 to 5.5 years.  Some have lived to be 15.

Watch them fly and they'll inevitably look as if their wings are out of synch, one wing up and the other one down.  This is an illusion caused by their rapid flapping and side-to-side turns.  If you added wings to a cigar it would do the same, but not as gracefully.


(photo by Jim McCullough, Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings”

  1. Timon 15 May 2014 at 8:28 pm

    What a great article about these amazing flying phenoms! Thanks, Kate! Here is some information and a link for anyone who is interested in learning more about the chimney swifts.

    The Audubon Society of Western PA, with funding from the Spark Fund, installed a chimney swift tower at Shaler Area High School in the Fall of 2012. The tower is a wooden faux chimney that provides a safe nesting site for the chimney swifts. They also installed a webcam inside the tower for viewing these delightful birds.

    I teach biology at Shaler Area and I have been observing the camera every few days for the past month. So far I haven’t seen any chimney swift activity, but I am still hopeful. If you are interested in learning more about the project or if you would like to view the webcam, here is the link to the site:

    Also, I would like to acknowledge Chris Lisowski, art teacher and Ecology Club sponsor at Shaler Area HS, who worked very hard with ASWP and the Spark Fund to make this project happen. Thanks, Chris!

    Tim Taylor
    Biology Teacher
    Shaler Area HS

  2. Kate St. Johnon 15 May 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Cool! Thank you, Tim.

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