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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Chimney swifts circle 'round before suddenly roosting for the night. © David Maslowski

October 2002

A swift performance

And you thought eight clowns in a car was a tough act to follow!

Anita Carpenter

Chimney swifts circle 'round and 'round before suddenly roosting for the night.

© David Maslowski

In the fading autumn twilight, chimney swifts orchestrate a performance worth our attention. After a long day of catching high-flying insects, the five-inch, cigar-shaped black birds congregate around a favorite chimney. A swirling whirlpool of 50 to perhaps a few hundred swifts circle together in preparation for a spectacular descent into their nighttime roost.

Around and around they fly on short, stiff, swept-back wings, some twittering, but most silent. None seem in a hurry to be the first to break rank.

Suddenly one bird dives steeply at the chimney and appears to enter. It actually passes close behind and rejoins the flock. Two, three, five birds follow in quick succession, but not one drops into the target. Some break free of the whirling mass and go out to feed. Soon they rejoin the flock and the swarm gets bigger. A few more birds dive toward the chimney but veer off at the last moment. Then, something spooks the flock and birds disperse in all directions twittering excitedly as they depart. The sky is empty and quiet, devoid of swifts...but not for long.

As twilight deepens, the swifts return and the circling recommences. The swarm grows, but its diameter appears to be getting smaller. The flock seems more focused. Another bird makes a pass at the chimney. More circling. Eventually a swift dives toward the chimney and repositions its wings up over its back.

Losing speed and altitude, it drops toward the opening and gently flutters, feet first, into the chimney. Instantly another swift follows. Then another. The descent is on, but not all swifts are eager to enter. Some pass closely and veer off. Others continue to circle. The scene reminds me of youngsters who should be in bed, but find excuses to dawdle.

Darkness is almost upon us. As if the secret signal has been given, swifts drop into the chimney one right after another. This is the moment I have been patiently waiting for, the grand finale. The swifts enter so quickly it's as if a giant vacuum is sucking them in. I've been counting the birds as they funnel into the chimney, but now they're disappearing so fast that I've lost count.

It's amazing during this frenzied, but orderly, descent that the swifts don't bump into each other. One can only imagine the great flutter of wings and commotion that must occur within the chimney as each swift finds a spot and settles in for the night. With so many birds in such a limited space, the birds must be stacked like overlapping shingles. It's no wonder that no bird wants to be the first into the roost and perhaps at the bottom of the mass.

The show is over for another night. The skies are silent. In a few days, the growing flock fails to return for its sundown performance. The swifts have taken their act on the road, pausing farther south along their migration route to delight others who care to watch. Eventually the birds arrive in South America to spend the winter.

The curtain is drawn until late March when the graceful sky dances and twittering music return as chimney swifts ply the skies in search of food and each other.

Anita Carpenter catches many of nature's great performances from her home in Oshkosh.