Chimney swifts are fascinating seasonal visitors
by Joe Ballard
During the latter part of the 19th century, Truro citizens would gather at the south side of Victoria Square to watch the rendezvous of chimney swifts above the big chimney of the Longworth-Layton law office. This is the earliest documented site in Truro where the chimney swift “vortex” entertained spellbound spectators. Each springtime, at dusk, a cloud of swifts would flitter about above the building for many minutes, until one resolute creature would finally decide it was time to head inside. The rest would follow in an orchestrated manner that resembled a funnel cloud. Once inside, all would spend the night vertically clinging to the side of the chimney or roosting in a tiny nest.
This sublime springtime ritual is fairly well-known where swift populations exist. The Maritime provinces are generally considered to mark the northern limits of the chimney swifts’ range. The nightly performance of these aerialists engenders a host of questions: How do so many creatures fit into such a confined space? How is it that they’ve become so comfortable with our built environment? Why do they feel compelled to enter at the same time in such a dazzling manner? And what is the attraction with chimneys, anyhow?
A chimney—at least in the opinion of swifts—can serve as a fairly suitable substitute for a hollow tree, which is their traditional habitat. Large, old growth trees hollowed out through decay and assistance from wildlife are not as plentiful as they once were. As European settlement expanded throughout northeastern North America—the summer home of the chimney swift—nature’s monoliths were felled to feed the hungry brick ones erected by humans. Many of our trees, upon reaching a certain size, still tend to be appropriated for human use.
In 1904, renovations in the Longworth-Layton law office prompted the birds, whose numbers were described as being “in the hundreds” to move to the chimney of the old Gates Organ factory, at the west side of Victoria Square, about 75 metres away.
This new home, variously a shoe factory, organ factory, coffin factory, agricultural implements warehouse, and finally home of Eastern Hat & Cap, saw such regular changes that it wasn’t long before the swifts saw fit to make another move. The present First United Church (then Presbyterian) was built in 1915 at the corner of Prince and Lorne Streets; and although constructed for a Christian flock was quickly occupied by another flock altogether unintended. Again, locals enjoyed watching the birds’ antics.
A comment in the Truro Daily News in 1919 mentioned that, “It was as good as a circus to see these birds circling around this chimney; and then, at the word of command of a leader, dart like an arrow into the chimney for the night.”
In the spring of 1919, while settled in their new sanctuary, sustained cold and wind conspired against the chimney swifts; depriving them of their food supply—airborne insects —of which they consume an amount equal to one third of their body weight daily. Food wasn’t the only problem; the late lingering cold also meant furnaces were in operation further into the season than normal. That spring some 200 half-famished birds were observed to be near death.
Leaping to action, professor E. Chesley Allen, ornithologist of the Normal College, [later the Teachers College] along with two Boy Scouts, accessed the church’s four flues. The flue into which the recently running furnace exhausted contained the most bodies. In all, 1,175 birds had perished but the professor liberated about 100 with strength enough to fly away in search of better housing.
Over subsequent years, the chimney swifts eventually found refuge in the Normal College just across the street from the church built in 1915. Do you suppose they knew the sympathetic professor toiled there?
In 2015, as the former Normal College was being re-purposed to serve as the region’s new library, local naturalists alerted municipal officials of the chimney-habitat. The old chimney was unstable and retaining it was not part of the renovation plan. In stepped Bird Studies Canada, an organization that sponsors Swiftwatch: a monitoring and conservation program that brings volunteers and community groups together to act as stewards for chimney swifts and their unusual habitat. The population of the endangered bird, according to Martimes Swiftwatch, had declined by 95 per cent in four decades in our region. In a splendid act of solidarity, Bird Studies Canada worked with town officials and the contractor to stabilize the chimney for the swifts thereby ensuring the habitat’s ongoing role as a seasonal roost for the migratory bird.
Today, an interpretive panel informing passersby of the novel bird habitat has recently been installed outside of the Colchester-East Hants Public Library in Truro.
The chimney swift is a migratory species that overwinters in South America. Among its various singular traits is that it is incapable of perching upright—a fact that helps explain its affinity for chimneys. Its aerial dexterity allows it not only to feed while airborne, but also to drink and bathe by skimming the surface of water with its beak or belly.
For a more extensive bird’s eye view of historic Truro, check out the Nova Scotia Archives website where you can “fly around” Truro in 1889 and visit other communities as well.
Chimney swifts in the Maritimes
Swifts are assessed as being endangered in our region, according to COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) and are legally protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). It’s an offense to disturb, kill or capture adults, eggs or young birds.
Thankfully, communities such as Truro are banding together to help protect and monitor populations of these birds, who normally reside in the region from April to September. Among the communities that host birds and do counts on populations are the following:
New Brunswick: Edmundston, Fredericton, Hampton, Plaster Rock, Riverside-Albert, St. Anne-de-Madawaska, Sussex and Woodstock.
Nova Scotia: Bear River, Bridgetown, Falmouth, Mabou, McGowan Lake, Middleton, New Glasgow, St. Bernard, Truro, and Wolfville. Wolfville, NS has a dedicated exhibit and chimney, the Robie Tufts Nature Centre, where hundreds of swifts thrill visitors and residents each night as they disappear into the chimney of the former Farmers Dairy.
More information on the tiny birds can be found at birdscanada.org
Swifts at a glance
- Nova Scotia lies on the edge of northern breeding habitat
- Swifts are small birds, rarely more than 14 centimetres long.
- Monagamous breeding pairs partner in nest building, incubating and raising their two to six young, which incubate for 19-21 days. The young normally begin their flying life at four weeks of age but may climb out of their nest as much as a week before taking wing.
- Breeding and nesting towers, such as the Robie Tufts Nature Centre in Wolfville, NS, help to replace lost habitat and offer protection for this endangered species. Find out more about how to help chimney swifts in your community at facebook.com/Maritimes.Swifts.