Chim Chim Cher-ee

The Wildlife Center has had a recent influx of orphaned Chimney Swifts, which is pretty exciting since most of these adult birds never sit still long enough for people to get a good look at them. Adult Chimney Swifts are almost always flying, except during nesting season or when roosting [a term used for birds and other animals when they find a place to sleep]. Chimney Swifts are aerial insectivores, which means they eat in flight. They’ve even bath while still in flight by just skimming the surface of the water when they fly by. When the swifts are nesting or roosting, you won’t find them perched on a tree branch like most birds -- instead you’d have to look inside hollow trees, caves or, as the name suggests -- chimneys. These birds have specially designed feet perfect for clinging to walls.

Many of the baby Chimney Swifts brought to us are found at the bottom of someone’s chimney. The young babies have usually fallen from the nest, sometimes during a storm or other event. If the chimney is not clean, the whole nest may fall, taking the babies with it. The nests are attached to the walls by glue-like saliva which the adults produce. In many cases, these birds can be reunited or re-nested so that their parents can continue to raise them.

If the baby swifts are not able to be able to be reunited with their parents, or the homeowner is unwilling to reunite, each swift is examined. Once deemed a healthy young animal, they can start being fed in our baby bird ICU every 15 minutes for 12 hours a day. Every 15 minutes may seem like a lot of work, but this is actually how the rehabilitators raise all our very young birds.

In our ICU, young birds of most species are placed in an incubator to keep the birds well hydrated and warm. Once the baby birds are growing more feathers and are ready to leave the incubator, we can move them to an aquarium on a heating pad. This housing is the same for the swifts – with a few changes. Baby swifts are placed in special deep-pocketed nests in an incubator, where they can cling to the sides of their nests instead of sitting on the bottom like other baby birds. When the swifts are old enough, they are placed in an aquarium with a hanging mesh for them to climb on in addition to their special deep nest. The swifts are fed different types of dead vitamin-soaked insects every 15 minutes, since they are insectivores.

Swifts are not always the easiest birds to feed. At first, they will not gape [open their mouths] for rehabilitators, and they most likely will just make their angry chattering call. One trick we’ve learned to get them to gape is to softly blow on them. The blowing mimics the parents returning to the nest with food. Though this seemed to work most times at the Center, there have been a few stubborn Chimney Swift cases where we’ve spent so much effort blowing on them, it made us dizzy. Sometimes a recording of other juvenile swifts making their twittering call will also get the swifts to gape. If the blowing or a recorded call does not work, we have to force-feed the bird every 15 minutes to make sure it is getting enough calories for the day. When the baby swifts are gaping, they make a hungry twittering noise that you can hear all the way down the hallway.

Chimney Swifts are some amazing birds. Sadly, they have been declining in numbers for the past 50 years. This is likely due to the replacement of old brick chimneys with more modern chimneys, less suitable for nesting. Capping unused chimneys is another probable reason for their decline, in addition to logging old growth forests, where chimney swifts naturally nest. Preserving old chimneys or creating alternative structures for the swifts are great ways to help prevent population declines.

--Elise
WCV Class of 2014