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8-14 August 2001

Drawing: Hummingbird & FlowerDON'T MISS

Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center, again will offer his entertaining and informative "Hummingbird Mornings" at Carolinas locales in July & August 2001. Click on the hummingbird drawing at left for details.

More Bird Cussing,
This Time By Juvenile Delinquents

After last week's essay on cursing abilities of the Yellow-breasted Chat, we heard from several Web surfers who agreed that this mega-warbler might indeed be the most profane bird likely to be found at Hilton Pond Center. Smug in our accurate analysis that not many birds are likely to out-cuss a chat, we were startled one evening this week to hear a new sort of violent swearing coming from--of all locations--the fireplace in the Center's old farmhouse!

This was not polished profanity such as that produced by chats or Gray Catbirds, but rather a loud, raspy series of screeches that were far more irritating than fingernails on a chalkboard. Sixteen-year-old Garry Hilton, youngest of the field researchers at the Center, was quick to cover his ears and about as fast to come to judgment about the source of the sound: "Well, I think some baby swifts have fallen down the chimney."

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

Garry's analysis was borne out when he shined a flashlight through the firescreen and spotted two young Chimney Swifts clinging to brickwork--just adjacent to where a parent also perched. Almost every year a swift nest breaks loose from the chimney lining as the chicks increase in size, causing swift siblings to come tumbling down à la Santa Claus at Hilton Pond Center. Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)Usually the chicks are small and nearly naked, but the current pair was fairly well covered in pinfeathers (right). The adult bird just hung there quietly as we watched, but the youngsters huddled together and screamed like banshees.

Once when two very young swifts and their nest ended up in the fireplace, we placed them in a small cup and placed it outside on top of the chimney, hopeful the parent birds would find and continue to feed them. That effort failed when a violent thunderstorm barreled through a few days later and blew our makeshift accommodations to the ground. This time, however, we were confident we could save the chicks, since they were fully able to hang inside the chimney without a nest to support them.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) foot and bandFirst off, we simply reached in and grabbed the adult bird, which hadn't moved or vocalized the whole time we were observing. It was an easy matter to apply a size 1B band to the adult's short leg (left), take photos, and send the swift safely skyward. We quickly banded its two rowdy delinquents--which, we assure you, never ceased their "fowl-mouthed" raving and ranting--and placed them in a cloth bag. Then came the hard part: ascend a 10-foot ladder to the carport roof, drag another 10-foot ladder up the steep hip roof of the old farmhouse, lean the ladder against the chimney at a precarious 45-degree angle (unacceptable to OHSA, we are sure), climb the ladder, remove the chicks from the bag, and stretch to place them inside the mouth of the chimney--all without the aid of a net or stunt double.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)Amazingly, both chicks clung to masonry between the bricks and actually scooted under a slight overhang, where they were likely to be out of the elements. Then it was climb back down the ladders, kiss the ground, and sit back to see if the banded adult bird showed up. All this was going on at dusk, so we're not sure if either parent returned that evening. If they don't come back it certainly WON'T be because they're unable to hear the their irate and hungry offspring, since their screams were easily audible from both outside--AND inside--the farmhouse at Hilton Pond Center.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)

Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are Neotropical migrants that breed east of the Rocky Mountains and across the U.S. and southern Canada; in autumn they fly to the upper Amazon River basin. Swifts are sometimes confused with a completely unrelated family of birds, the swallows, which have similarly long wings. Swallows and swifts all have wide gapes that help them capture flying insects such as ants, termites, and flies, but swifts lack the mouth bristles common to swallows.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) tailSwifts are in the Apodidae (Swift Family), a name that means "no feet"; they have feet, of course, but their legs are so weak that swifts cannot walk and may even be unable to take off from the ground. However, the feet ARE equipped with strong toes and sharp claws (above left) that enable the bird to hang on suitable surfaces--a habit facilitated by a short tail in which the central spines are very stiff and pointed (above right). In North America, swifts historically roosted inside large hollow trees and on sheltered rock faces, but today are heavily dependent on human-made structures. Swifts roost by the hundreds in tall chimneys, often spiraling out in large funnels at dusk; observers have counted as many as 10,000 individual swifts leaving a single industrial chimney, all twittering as they zoomed after a mouthful of beetles and bugs.

In spring Chimney Swift pairs swoop at tall trees, breaking off tiny dead twigs and using their sticky saliva to cement the twigs to each other and the chimney. The result is a loosely structured nest shaped like a "half-bowl" (left). Incidentally, the glutinous nest saliva produced by a species of Asian swifts is the primary ingredient in bird's-nest soup--a delicacy that for some reason has never quite caught on in the Americas.

Click here for a QuickTime sound movie of young Chimney Swifts cussing at Hilton Pond Center. (NOTE: QuickTime movies are large files that may take a few minutes to load. They will not play unless the QuickTime plug-in is installed in your Web browser.)

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) head

Chimney Swift (adult)
Sexes are similar in appearance

The following species were banded this week (8-14 August):

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--11*
White-eyed Vireo--1*
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher--1
Northern Cardinal--6*
Great Crested Flycatcher--1*
House Finch--6*
Carolina Wren--1*
Chimney Swift--3 (two nestlings)
Brown Thrasher--1*
Common Grackle--1*

* = Includes at least one Recent Fledgling

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

(8-14 August 2001)
10 species
32 individuals

64 species
904 individuals
(since 28 June 1982)
122 species
39,187 individuals

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (3)
Northern Cardinal (1)

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher
Sexes are similar in appearance

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Made With MacintoshHilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this website, contact: WEBMASTER.