The Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) is a type of swift, sometimes referred to as American Swift. It commonly nests in chimneys in eastern North America, and migrates in large flocks to northwestern South America for the winter.
Taxonomy and systematics
When he first described the Chimney Swift in 1758, Carl Linnaeus named it Hirundo pelagica, believing it to be a swallow. This misconception continued well into the 1800s, with ornithologists calling it "American Swallow" (e.g. Mark Catesby) or "Chimney Swallow" (e.g. John James Audubon). In 1825, James Francis Stephens moved this and other small, short-tailed New World swifts to the genus Chaetura, where it has since remained, although some other authorities in the 1800s assigned it to a variety of now obsolete genera. It has no subspecies.
The Chimney Swift's genus name, Chaetura, is a combination of two Greek words: chaite, which means "bristle" or "spine", and oura which means "tail". This is an apt description of the bird's tail, as the shafts of all ten tail feathers (rectrices) end in sharp, protruding points. The specific name pelagica is derived from the Greek word pelagikos, which means "of the sea". This is thought to be a reference to its nomadic lifestyle rather than to any reference to the sea, a theory strengthened by the later assignment of the specific name pelasgia (after the nomadic Pelasgi tribe of ancient Greece) to the same species by other ornithologists. Its common name refers to its preferred nesting site and its speedy flight.
This is a small swift, with a length of 12 to 15 cm (4.7 to 5.9 in) and a wingspan of 27 to 30 cm (11 to 12 in). In flight, this bird this species is often described as resembling a flying cigar due to its cylindrical body shape. It has long slender curved wings, with a wing chord length of 12.2 to 13.3 cm (4.8 to 5.2 in). The plumage is a sooty grey-brown; the throat, breast, underwings and rump are paler. They have short tails of 3.9 to 4.6 cm (1.5 to 1.8 in) in length. Chimney Swifts also have the shortest legs of any bird native to Ontario, with a tarsus length of 1.1 cm (0.43 in). Their bills are also extremely short, with a culmen of 0.5 cm (0.20 in). Weight can vary from 17 to 30 g (0.60 to 1.1 oz), with an average mass of 21.3 g (0.75 oz).
The Chimney Swift looks very much like the closely related Vaux's Swift, but is slightly larger, with relatively longer wings and tail, slower wingbeats and a greater tendency to soar. It tends to be darker on the breast and rump than the Vaux's Swift, though there is some overlap in plumage coloring. It is smaller, paler and shorter tailed than the Black Swift.
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It is a long distance migrant and winters in northeastern South America. The full population migrates seasonally in large flocks, but in mild winters some may overwinter in Florida. This species has occurred as a very rare vagrant to western Europe, Great Britain or Pribilof Island, Alaska. The gregarious nature of this species is reflected in that two individuals of this species turned up together on the Isles of Scilly.
The breeding season of Chimney Swifts is from May through July. Their breeding habitat is near towns and cities across eastern North America. Originally, these birds nested in large hollow trees, but now they mainly nest in man-made structures such as large open chimneys. A suitable shaded location is selected, and the nest is constructed from twigs glued together with saliva.
The female typically lays 4–5 eggs, though clutch sizes range from 3 to 6. The eggs, which are long and elliptical in shape, are moderately glossy, smooth and white, and measure 20 mm × 13 mm (0.79 in × 0.51 in). They are incubated by both parents, and hatch after 19 days. Baby Chimney Swifts are altricial—naked, blind and helpless when they hatch. Fledglings leave the nest after a month. Chimney Swifts can nest more than once in a season. While Chimney swifts will roost together in large numbers, it is rare to find more than one nest per chimney. Nesting sites are normally small chimneys but nests are also built in large communal roosts. It is suspected that fledged young are often fed by their parents while the young roost together in large communal roosts.
Like all swifts, the Chimney Swift forages on the wing, feeding on flying insects. It is an important predator of pest species such as the red imported fire ant and the clover root curculio. They usually feed in groups, flying closely together and making a high-pitched chipping noise. Their flight is distinctive: they make rapid angular turns unlike most other birds.
The Chimney Swift has a twittering call, consisting of a rapid series of hard, high-pitched chips. It sometimes gives single chips.
Conservation status and threats
Their population may have increased historically with the introduction of large chimneys as nesting locations. With suitable man-made habitat becoming less common, their numbers are declining in some areas. They were listed as Threatened by COSEWIC for several years with a likely listing of the species on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act.
The Chimney Swift carries a number of internal and external parasites. It is the type host for the nematode species Aproctella nuda and the biting lice species Dennyus dubius. Its nest is known to host the Hemiptera species Cimexopsis nyctali, which is similar to the bedbug, and can (on rare occasions) become a pest species in houses.
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