Chimney Swifts or Chimney Sweeps

I grew up in an old farmhouse with two brick chimneys. They had been closed off and were not used by us, but they were used. Small birds we called “chimney sweeps” lived in them, coming out in the mornings and flying around late in the afternoon before diving back in for the night.

In my youthful overconfidence, I used to shoot at them with a BB gun, and actually hit one while it was flying one time. It was a miracle I hit it, but I probably shot at them thousands of times before connecting. That one time was enough, after killing it and getting a good look at it I quit shooting at them.

A recent report from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) gave me a lot more information about those birds. They are actually called “chimney swifts” and migrate through Georgia in the fall headed south and back north in the spring. They stop in our area to nest in the spring before heading further north.

These birds nested in hollow trees before we offered them chimneys to use, and now they depend on chimneys, old abandoned buildings and airshafts to roost in at night and to nest in during the spring. They can cause some problems because they can introduce vermin into your house, but they eat many insects while flying around, keeping the mosquito population low in areas where they live.

If you have an old chimney on your house, don’t worry about the birds in it. They will be a help to you and not cause any problems. They do need brick or stone chimneys with cement joints between the stones or bricks. They can not roost or nest in metal chimneys so those should always be capped to keep them out.

Chimney swifts have four strong claws on their feet and can grab the rough mortar in joints and roost hanging vertically, almost like bats. Most birds must perch upright but these swifts can hang sideways and spend the night.

If you want to provide a suitable nesting spot for them next spring when they return from their winter habitat in the Amazon Basin of South America, the DNR has some suggestions. Make sure the chimney is cleaned no later than March to remove creosote residue. This needs to be done to avoid fire hazards to your house as well as helping the birds. Chimney swift nests are not a fire hazard, according to the DNR.

Close the damper above your fireplace or stove. This keeps droppings and young birds from falling all the way into the base of the fireplace. Otherwise you might have to rescue a very upset bird covered in soot from your stove! It also lowers the noise you will hear from the birds.

Metal chimneys need to be covered but stone and brick chimneys can be left open so the birds have access to roost and nest. They are having a hard time finding good sites since many big hollow trees have been cut and most modern chimneys are made of metal, making them unsuitable for the birds.

If you have old buildings with chimneys on your property, keep them standing and let the birds use them. That will keep them nearby and they can survive without using the chimney on your house.

You will enjoy seeing these fast, streamline birds darting around your house. Don’t try to shoot them, just let them eat up the bugs that bother you. That seems to be a pretty good rent on your chimney.

For more information on these birds and providing roosting and nesting places for them, you can go to http://www.georgiawildlife.com and click on “Nongame Animals and Plants” and also on “Backyard Wildlife – Wildlife.” If you see unusual numbers of chimney swifts – numbering in the hundreds to thousands – call the DNR Nongame Wildlife & Natural Heritage Section in Forsyth at 478-994-1438.

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