All posts by Dory Owen

Tips on how and where to look for chimney swifts

chimney-swift_17137_435x580Chimney swifts have slender bodies, very long, narrow, curved wings and short, tapered tails. They fly rapidly, with nearly constant wing beats, often twisting from side to side and banking erratically. They often give a distinctive, high-pitched chattering call while they are in flight, said Bill Mueller of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, Belgium, WI, and an advisor to the working group.

“A lot of folks see and hear them in the evening and don’t realize they’re birds,” he said. “They think they’re bats.”

Because chimney swifts congregate in communal roosts before migrating in late summer/fall, it’s relatively easy to count them. Here’s how to count:

  1. Look for tall brick chimneys that are uncapped. Watch to see where swifts are feeding and congregating. Pick one or more nights from early August in northern Wisconsin through mid- to late September in southern Wisconsin. Observe the roost starting about 30 minutes before sunset until 10 minutes after the last swift enters the chimney. Count (or estimate) the number of swifts as they enter the chimney. It’s useful to count in groups of five or 10 birds at a time when many birds pour into the chimney in a short period of time.
  2. Submit your data using one of two quick and easy ways.
    • Enter the data on Go to the ebird-quick-start-guide for instructions. When prompts for the location, map your roost site to an exact address or chimney. In the species comments section include general weather conditions, time when the first and last swifts entered the roost and type of building — residence, school, church, business, etc.
    • Or, send the same information as above along with your name, address, email address, date and exact time of your survey at the roost to Sandy Schwab, 105 S. Marietta St., Verona, WI  53593 or

VIDEO: 860 swifts at Janesville’s “Swift Night Out”

On the evening of September 7th 2014 Janesville (an official Wisconsin “Bird City“) had a “Swift Night Out” event.  860 migrating swifts were counted descending the chimney to spend the night at the Washington Elementary school before continuing their journey to South America.  Thanks to Joni Denker for sharing this impressive video on YouTube and posting on  Janesville’s Bird City Facebook page is here.

Stan Temple: Teen adventures with swifts

temple2A great story, from one of our most accomplished Wisconsin ornithologists and conservationists:

My introduction to the world of the Chimney Swift began in the chimney of my grandparents’ house in Cleveland, Ohio, back in 1959. My grandfather worked for the local utility company and was a stickler about how the home’s heating system performed. He forbade my grandmother from using the living-room fireplace because he had calculated how much heat would be “sucked up the chimney.” Unused for years, the chimney, which ran through a bedroom wall, eventually hosted a nesting pair of swifts that attracted my attention with their very audible “twittering.” My second-floor room had a porch that provided easy access to the roof and the chimney. My teenage passion for birds was far greater than my respect for my grandmother’s admonition to “stay off the roof or you’ll fall and break your neck.” I spent a lot of time peering down into the darkness and monitoring progress at the swifts’ nest, which eventually produced two fledglings.

My interest in swifts having been piqued, I began checking out other chimneys in the neighborhood, and discovered several that had birds coming and going from them. But I was especially fascinated with the several “chimneys” on an old church rectory (subsequently found to be ventilation shafts) that were populated by hundreds of swifts that created a veritable avian tornado each night. I assumed that it must be a huge colony of nesting swifts.

At the time I was working part-time at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where I regularly attended meetings of the local Kirtland Bird Club, named after Jared Potter Kirtland, the local naturalist who in 1851 discovered the Kirtland’s Warbler near the future site of my grandparent’s home. I mentioned my observations of swifts at a meeting when Professor Ralph W. Dexter from Kent State University happened to be in attendance. I had encountered him in passing when he occasionally visited the museum’s mollusk collection, but at the time I wasn’t aware that he was THE reigning expert on Chimney Swifts. He gently corrected my erroneous interpretation that the swifts at the church comprised a nesting colony and explained that they were simply roosting and that there were probably no more than a few pairs nesting in the chimneys. Nonetheless, impressed by my interest in swifts, he invited me to visit him and observe how he studied KentStateSealswifts at Kent State. I took advantage of his generosity and was able to visit him the next summer, helping him with his legendary, long-term banding studies of the swifts nesting and roosting in the ventilating shafts of older buildings on campus. At that time his notoriety for studying the campus swifts lead Kent State to incorporate a silhouette of a Chimney Swift into its official seal.

Encouraged by my brief field experience with Dr. Dexter, I was determined to have a closer look at the large concentration of swifts in the chimneys of the neighborhood church. I had convinced myself I was going to prove Dr. Dexter wrong and that my birds really were a large nesting colony. With the help of a sympathetic church janitor, I gained access to the roof and was finally able to examine the chimneys and found . . . just what Dr. Dexter had predicted: no more than a single active nest in any shaft! Most of the non-breeding, roosting birds were actually in shafts not used by nesting pairs. Chastened, I never brought up the subject of swifts again at bird club meetings, but Dr. Dexter did become a supporter of my career in ornithology and wrote a letter on my behalf when I applied for admission to Cornell University where I eventually earned my Ph.D. at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Stanley A. Temple
Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation, University of Wisconsin
Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation

Althea Sherman’s swift tower webcam

AltheaTower AltheaNest AltheaBinocsIn Iowa, the restored 1915 wooden Althea Sherman swift tower has a late-season swift nest and a webcam!

There were still 5 eggs on August 3, and by August 6 there were 3 or possibly 4 hatchlings. As of 8-18-14, the 5 babies are probably between 13-15 days old, just in time for eyes to open and for first steps onto wall to begin. Both parents feed and brood the nestlings.

Linda & Robert Scarth have been blogging about the nest and have wonderful photos of the nestlings in the tower.

Wisc Humane Society rehabs “Matt” the swift

Rehabbed swift at Wisc Humane Society
© Wisconsin Humane Society.

The Wisconsin Humane Society’s wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee cares for over 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals every year.  This lucky swift made a full recovery:

Matt had suffered a mild concussion from a collision and was stunned. Because Swifts eat on the wing and don’t know how to feed on the ground, Wildlife staff diligently hand fed mealworms to Matt every half an hour to make sure he had enough to eat. After several days of hand-feeding and medical treatment, Matt finally perked up and was ready to be released!

Read more about Matt at The Wisconsin Humane Society website.

Hartland kids & businesses team up to build swift roosting tower

Ramsey Schlissel tells us that ground has broken on the Hartland chimney tower project.  A huge chimney at the historic White Elm Nursery, a roosting site for about 1000 swifts, was demolished this year.   The Hartland community raised funds to build a replacement “chimney”.  Hopes are high that migrating swifts will relocate this fall to the nearby Ice Age Trail – John Muir Lookout, south of town along the Bark River.

For more information or to donate to the project: