The Jet Set

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Chimney swifts are a protected species even if they’re in customers’…uh…chimneys. Installing a chimney cap as a way to exclude these birds (and other wildlife) is a seasonal — and preventive — service PMPs may want to consider.

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April 21, 2016

© Greg Schechter | Wikimedia
Chimney swifts, like these in a chimney in Missouri, roost communally when not breeding.

March and April bring showers and flowers, as everyone knows. To my mind, however, nothing says spring has sprung quite as clearly as the return of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica).

These small, sleek birds have belonged to the feathered Jet Set since way back. They’re trendsetters, though, not fad followers. For example, fashionistas may be trading sweaters and down anoraks for bright sundresses and tropical guayaberas but swifts stick to an all-seasons wardrobe in hipster tones of monochromatic sooty charcoal accented with an understated ash-gray ascot at the throat. Très chic! Moreover, chimney swifts prefer to winter in the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Brazil, Ecuador or Chile, not in St. Barts or Dubai, and they always summer east of the Rockies. Love, love, LOVE the U.S. and Canada, dahling.

Chimney swifts are all platinum-status frequent flyers. Their cigar-shaped fuselage and narrow, curved wings are built for speed and acrobatic maneuverability, so you won’t find them shuffling through airport security headed for the first-class lounge. Commercial flights are so…pedestrian. Plus these birds are rarely ever seen standing still. Their Latin family name — Apodidae — means “footless,” and while that’s not strictly true their legs and feet are not their strongest feature. Swifts don’t perch. When forced to land they cling to vertical surfaces, including the walls of those eponymous chimneys.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. This brings us to another characteristic that sets swifts apart from the globetrotting glitterati. Long before Airbnb matched adventurers and accommodations, chimney swifts were bypassing 5-star hotels for host families. It all started when Europeans arrived in the New World and began building houses and fireplaces. The local swifts, who had been housekeeping in hollow trees for more generations than anyone could count, saw an opportunity to make a killing in real estate and seized the day. The rest is history. Now the birds are annual North American summer houseguests, albeit usually uninvited and sometimes unwelcomed.

It’s not because they’re inconsiderate. Swifts mostly mind their Ps and Qs. They don’t monopolize the bathroom taking long, hot showers — a quick splash in a puddle or pool, followed by a thorough mid-air shake, does the trick. They never raid the family fridge — thousands of in-flight protein-rich insect snacks each day provide nourishment. They don’t expect a chambermaid and fresh linens — using found objects, such as small twigs, and glue-like saliva they fashion temporary fire-resistant DIY berths on the chimney wall to cradle their offspring.

Actually, it’s the kids that cause most conflicts with the accidental landlords. Chimney swifts rear one to two broods of three to five young while visiting the Northern Hemisphere. The chicks, who snuggle up quietly together while napping, turn into the very definition of sibling rivalry each time a parent arrives at the nest with a meal delivery. The hungry mob pushes and shoves for position, stretching wobbly necks to the heavens as they open their mouths wide and scream their heads off so Mom or Dad will notice and reward them with a juicy morsel. Those high-pitched squeals for attention amplify as they bounce down the open chimney shaft, past the damper and out into the room below. Multiply that acoustic event by hundreds of feedings per day and homeowners can soon begin to feel as though they’re being strafed with sound.

© Jim McCulloch | Wikimedia

There’s a simple solution to live and let live for your customers. A thick slab of Styrofoam (a.k.a., expanded polystyrene) from the local craft store, cut to fit snuggly inside the hearth opening, will reduce the chatter to a tolerable decibel level.

Meanwhile, it can help to remember that their parents are scouring the skies above the humble abode for mosquitoes, making summer evenings outdoors much more pleasant. Plus, it only takes two to three weeks for the youngsters to progress from hatchling to flying away, which is pretty impressive you have to admit.

Still, if your customers would rather not play innkeeper to international travelers, now’s the time to turn off their “vacancy” sign by adding a chimney cap. This relatively inexpensive device — which pest management professionals can install as an add-on service — will exclude all manner of wild things from moving into (or falling down) the flue. The cap also will stop downdrafts, prevent sparks and embers from landing on the roof, and block rain, leaves and branches.

Keep in mind, though, that once a chimney swift family has moved in, neither PMPs nor homeowners can legally evict them. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives swifts and most other wild birds a kind of diplomatic immunity so you’ll have to wait until they jet back to South America to pull up the welcome mat.

Dr. Kieran Lindsey loves looking for wild things in all the wrong places…so she became an urban wildlife biologist. She also has way too much fun as the official Animal-Vehicle Biologist for NPR’s “Car Talk.” Read her blog at www.nextdoornature.org. Contact her at klindsey@gie.net.