Not Santa, Just Swifts

Migrating Birds Make Temporary Homes Inside Baltimore Chimneys

August 10, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Five-year-old Miriam heard them first. But her mother, Mary Talalay, didn't quite believe there were birds living in their suburban chimney. Then she heard them, too.

The baby chimney swifts were chirping - and loudly - for food.

Each summer, Baltimore becomes a way station for thousands of the small, brownish-black birds, on their long migration between North and South America. They nest and roost inside local brick and stone chimneys, their preferred summer homestead.

Officials for the state Department of Natural Resources say homeowners sometimes mistake them for bats. And weary of damage or errant flying creatures in their houses, they often call the chimney sweep.

But all migratory birds, including swifts, are protected from eviction by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. And upon learning that the swifts don't damage chimneys, only stay for a couple of months and eat a third of their weight a day in insects such as mosquitoes, many people are happy to have them.

"We wouldn't want them evicted," said Talalay, whose family lives on a heavily treed lot in Lutherville with two dogs and fish. She also has a row of bird feeders that attract hummingbirds and cardinals, and apparently, chimney swifts. "It's exciting, really. They're not damaging anything and we don't use the fireplace in the summer. We wouldn't mind them coming back."

With such hospitable surroundings, they might. The birds tend to have favorite chimneys. When they roost, such as when they are migrating in the spring and fall, thousands will fill a large industrial chimney, according to Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where scientists spent three years monitoring the swifts' habits.

The swifts once made homes in hollowed-out trees from Brazil to southern Canada, but there aren't enough left. So they adapted to chimneys. They aren't able to perch but use their claws to dig into grout. Breeders will build nests of twigs glued to the wall with saliva. They have large wings and spend the day flying and eating insects.

Next month, the birds will begin migration. The new Talalay bird family will likely join with other birds for the journey, roosting in large chimneys along the way.

"The chirping people hear in their chimneys comes from chicks calling the adults. They're begging for food," Watts said. "It gets louder as they get older and can last two to three weeks. They've been there longer building the nest and laying eggs, but you wouldn't be aware of them."

Once they all join in Baltimore, there could be 2,500 to 3,500, said Joan Cwi, who coordinates a swift count for the Baltimore Bird Club every year. They roost in either a large industrial chimney in Hampden or the conservatory in Druid Hill Park (not both). In 2005, the group counted about 7,000, though it's hard to get a scientific count.

She said the birds circle the chimney and create a spectacular sight for counters - who will be out Sept. 13 this year. The counts are sent to a national group called the Driftwood Wildlife Association, which compiles data. The group said the birds seem to be on the decline, maybe because of weather and habitat and chimney loss.

"You don't need binoculars," Cwi said of count night. "You'll miss the big picture of all those birds circling."

As for those with birds at home, state officials say to close the damper so birds don't fly inside the house. Fully feathered birds found in the fireplace can be placed on the wall and allowed to climb up the chimney. Younger or injured birds may require a call to a wildlife rehabilitator. Chimneys can be cleaned in the fall after the birds leave.

In Lutherville, Miriam Talalay hopes her birds return: "I like their singing."

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