by John Shackford
Until this year Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) have nested regularly in our chimney; we are feeling a bit guilty because we have put a cap on our chimney on the advice of our “chimney sweep.” So we just watch the Chimney Swifts circle around and say to themselves—what’s with these inconsistent, thoughtless people? In some areas Chimney Swift numbers have been dropping in recent years: For central Oklahoma, their numbers on Breeding Bird Survey Routes between 1966-2003 have declined, on average, more than 1.5 percent per year. If you are serious about providing alternatives to chimney nest sites there is information about building an artificial nesting tower at www.chimneyswift.org.
The Chimney Swift, with its tapered head and tail, has been called “a cigar with wings.” During daylight hours, it spends very little time perched—it feeds in flight, drinks water and bathes in flight, gathers nesting material in flight, mates in flight. Other than landing inside a chimney for roosting or nesting, it only accidentally touches our earth. Most build nests inside chimneys, but once in a while a pair will still resort to a hollow tree, their “pre-civilization” nesting habitat. With both feet, in flight, they break off small dead twigs to make their nests. These twigs are covered with saliva and usually pasted to the insides of a chimney. Bird’s-nest soup, an Asian delicacy, is usually made from the nests of either the White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) or the Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus), species that use only saliva to build their nests. Dr. George M. Sutton, in his book, Birds Worth Watching, 1986, confessed that he had never gotten up the courage to boil 2 or 3 Chimney Swift nests (twigs and all) to see what that bird’s-nest soup tasted like.
A.C. Bent, in Life Histories of North American Cuckoos, Goatsuckers, Hummingbirds and their Allies, 1989, notes that “[o]f the few North American birds—and they are very few—that were influenced favorable by civilized man…the [C]himney [S]wift received the greatest benefit.” Bent goes on to say that the Chimney Swift doesn’t give humans any respect (as Rodney Dangerfield would have said). They build their nests “…in the chimneys of thousands of our homes and crisscross for weeks above our gardens and over the streets of our towns and cities, yet, wholly engrossed in their own activities far overhead, they do not appear to notice man at all.” “[W]e like to see them shooting about over our heads, and we enjoy their bright voices, yet …it is a guest that does not know we are its host.”
There is an interesting discussion about the Latin name of the Chimney Swift in the Dictionary of Birds of the United States, 2003, by Joel Ellis Holloway of Norman, Oklahoma: The Latin genus name Chaetura, means “hair-tail or bristle-tail,” although normally this use is restricted to animals other than birds. But one can see what this name is aiming at—the Chimney Swift’s “bristly” tail.
The real fun starts with the Latin species name, pelagica, which means “of the sea.” Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the original “lister,” assigned the species name pelagtea in 1758 and pelasgia in 1766: Linnaeus is speculated to have been trying for “the name Pelasgi, an ancient nomadic tribe in Greece,” but in all the confusion the species name ended up being pelagica—of the sea; not only is this name not helpful, it misdirects attention to the sea, which does not relate well to this species at all. If Linnaeus couldn’t get it right, this should make the rest of us feel a bit better about the lists we try (or fail) to keep.