Chimney Swift

From Home Base, Kim Writes: Chimney Swifts have always captivated me. When visible, they are constantly in motion, making it impossible to learn anything about the way the bird really looks. When I first got interested in birds, the fact that the illustration of the bird in my field guide was absolutely atrocious only added to the intrigue.

A few years ago, I was working at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's songbird banding station when we captured a Chimney Swift; a rare occurrence to say the least, since the birds tend to keep to the air and not drop down into the range of a 12 foot high mist net. We believe the bird may have been roosting in a large dead cottonwood tree near the mist net it was captured in.

On the wing, the bird is 100% mystery in motion, never pausing to allow study of any detail. In the hand, the bird is one of the most unusual creatures I have ever encountered. I have banded thousands of warblers, vireos, thrushes, et cetera, and have spent what I'm sure by now amounts to hours with my mouth hanging open in all-out awe of the up-close beauty of birds like Blackburnian Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, and Marsh Wren. But, I have to tell you that, for me, nothing has come close to that little Chimney Swift.

The bird is so perfectly constructed for its life style. Long, graceful wings that, even with the bird held still in my hand, seemed to imply motion. Its face is lovely, yet almost reptilian in appearance. Large eyes in a smallish head, with a bill that is so tiny as to almost be unnecessary. But, when that bill opens….Yowza! What a pie hole this bird displays; perfectly designed for sucking up insects out of the air. Out of the bird’s tail sprouted the sharpest, needle-like, modified feathers--
spines that any porcupine would surely have been jealous of! Not just bizarre and cool, these spines have a purpose. The bird uses them to prop itself against the inside of its nest cavity.

But most surprising and delightful for me was the color of the bird’s plumage. What a total shock. Not a single field guide does this bird justice, and, while I understand the rationale behind it -- shown from a birder's perspective, since that’s the way its typically seen -- it seems a shame not to at least give a teasing glimpse into the real story here. The Kaufman guide comes close, showing a bird perched on the side of a tree, but in the hand, in the right light, WOW…What a gorgeous little bird this is. Appearing solid sisterhood-gray in the sky, up close, the color is a shocking blend of purples, greens, blues, and grays, all stirred together in the most striking color combination that I’m sure is next to impossible to blend on even the most skilled artist’s palette.

Years later I am still marveling at my encounter with this spectacular little bird, and the beauty that lies within that little shadow in the sky. 


  1. I have always wondered about these birds, have watched them in Siena, Italy, around the buildings on the square, in my hometown Hamburg, whizzing around the roofs and chimneys and recently in Keene, NH,where I tried for about an hour to get a photograph, but eventually gave up. They seem to be faster than swallows and never slow down. They are one of my favorite birds...

  2. Kim,

    Thanks for this interesting post. I too am extremely intrigued by swifts and will lie outside in my backyard hammock most evenings lust to stare straight upward for swifts. I don't know exactly why I am so attracted to these creatures, but I am and vow that some day when I can say the heck with convention; I will go swift searching all the way back to their chimneys for a decent look.

  3. i am pretty sure that i have four of them in my chimney. they are just babies and can't fly yet, but they are beautiful. Can i post pictures of them I just took some.

  4. Hi Megan, Thanks for reading the blog and sharing your comment. I'd love to see your pictures! If you're on Facebook, perhaps you could share them on the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's Facebook wall!


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