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Swifts enjoy communal roost in Preston

Mon, Sep 5th, 2011
Posted in The Great Outdoors

Swifts descending into old elementary school chimney in Preson. Photo by Karen Reisner

About twenty bird and nature enthusiasts spent a pleasant evening, Wednesday August 31, at the Trailhead parking lot watching a current local phenomenon. Hundreds of swifts swarm around the old Preston elementary school chimney before funneling down into the chimney to roost for the night. The small five inch, sparrow sized bird is brownish-gray with a short tail and long, narrow, somewhat bowed wings that span about 12 inches.

As we watched the speedy little birds gather, an occasional turkey vulture would glide through. The comparatively very large, graceful in flight, bird also makes a summer home in Preston and will soon be making its way south for the winter.

The old school now serves as a hotel/apartment building owned by the Corson family. The tall brick chimney has been co-opted by hundreds of these little birds for their temporary night time dwelling. They are summertime visitors and should be welcomed, as they feed only on flying insects.

Greg Munson, former director of the Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester, had made a count estimate of nearly 1,100 swifts entering the chimney at dusk the previous Sunday night. The count this evening was greater than 1,000. Munson explained that the swifts only nest in residential chimneys. Because of the lack of old style, open chimneys, the habitat for the chimney swift has been limited. Swifts nest twice during the season and there is only one nest per chimney.

However, they do gather as they have in the old elementary school chimney in "communal roosts." The birds can fly in a circle as they gather and funnel into the chimney to roost for the night. According to Munson, they spend some of that roosting time preening.

As the birds descended into the chimney, we could hear their twittering chatter. Swifts gather in large flocks at roosting sites as they prepare for fall migration.

According to Munson, in 1944 it was discovered that the swifts migrate to Peru as many of the birds had been banded. Since then, it is known that they migrate to other South American countries as well.

Swifts are in the same Order as Hummingbirds, different Families. Swifts, with the exception of roosting at night, do everything in winged flight. They are one of the speediest fliers in the bird world and eat only flying insects. Water is consumed by dipping into a body of water as they fly over. Bathing is accomplished the same way. Swifts have small bills, but a wide mouth.

The birds gather twigs in flight for nesting, breaking them off as they fly by. Their nests are made of twigs held together with saliva. The cup-like nest is fastened to the interior chimney wall and holds a clutch of four or five white eggs.

Swifts are similar to swallows in some ways, but they are not closely related. Swifts are faster in flight and do not perch.

Information about swifts was obtained from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds and the American Bird Conservancy's Field Guide to All the Birds of North America.

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