Summer evening diners at one of the downtown Barrington restaurants with outdoor patios may note twitters in the sky above – not the twitter accounts regularly consulted on mobile devices, but those of charcoal-colored birds coursing rapidly overhead in the late afternoon and evening. The high-pitched chatter is fast-paced, as are the wingbeats of the birds, called chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica).
The chimney swift is a species often overlooked, even by birdwatchers. It does not perch or forage on the ground, or even approach much to eye level. It is a bird of the skies. In fact the chimney swift eats, often sleeps, and even mates in the air. It is so sky-bound that it has almost no legs, just long toes that help it grip the inside walls of hollow trees, caves or, most commonly, chimneys, where it roosts and builds its nest.
Yet the species is a fixture of summer. My father used to pull up a lawn chair on summer evenings at the edge of his driveway and tell me, “I’m waiting for the best show in town to begin.” Soon a chimney swift would appear seemingly out of nowhere, twittering, beating its wings in rapid-fire motion, never stopping, streaking back and forth, up and down, joined by others of its kind. The sky became alive with chimney swifts and I loved sitting there with my dad watching them.
Later I learned the term “flying cigar” to describe the appearance of the chimney swift. It’s an apt term. The swift’s body is tubular – yes, cigar-shaped – with an arc of long wings that make it an aerial artist. It is the color of soot, certainly appropriate for a bird that attaches its nest most often to the inside of chimneys. The nest is made of twigs broken off with the birds’ toes and pasted with saliva to the inside walls in the shape of a shallow half cup. But with the use of chimneys diminishing, and with newer designs inhospitable to the clinging toes of chimney swifts, the population is declining.
In the Barrington area, as well as the rest of eastern North America, we must savor the chimney swifts’ flights and sounds in these remaining weeks of summer. Once the birds have nested and raised young, they will be heading south to the Amazon basin where, though above different terrestrial habitats, they still will be birds of the sky. Once they appear in the spring, usually in early May, they signal the return of all long-distance migrants. Isn’t it wonderful to know that the skies over Barrington – and chimneys in town – host visitors from the Amazon every summer?
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.