Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings

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

14 May 2014

Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) return 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.  In flight they look like cigars with wings.  Here are some fun facts about them.

  • Chimney swifts are small. Stretch out your fingers as wide as you can. The wingspan of a chimney swift is the distance from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your pinky finger. If you have big hands, your hand is wider than the bird.
  • Chimney swifts “sing” a dry chittering song that is loudest when they’re courting.
  • Though most mating occurs at the nest chimney swifts can mate in flight!
  • Swifts cannot perch horizontally. Their legs+feet are shaped like garden claws so they can only cling upright to the inside of a chimney or hollow tree.
  • They nest in chimneys, constructing a half-moon cup of dead twigs glued with their sticky saliva.
  • To build a nest they grab dead twigs with their feet as they fly past trees, then transfer them to their bills to carry home.  I have never seen a swift gathering or carrying twigs.  It’s something to look forward to.
  • The female lays 4-5 eggs which both parents incubate for 19 days.  Because they delay incubation until the next-to-last egg, most of the eggs hatch on the same day. The young fledge at 28-30 days.
  • Sometimes one or two non-mated swifts will help a pair incubate, brood and feed their young.
  • Chimney swifts can live an amazingly long time, averaging 4.6 to 5.5 years.  Some have lived to be 15.
  • In flight they sometimes look as if their wings are out of synch, one wing up and the other down. This illusion is caused by their very rapid side-to-side turns. 

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

2 thoughts on “Fun Facts About Cigars With Wings

  1. 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

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