Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory

Chimney Swifts: Monitoring and Conserving

From Director William Mueller

These two urban-nesting species are in decline, creating an opportunity for nontraditional urban monitoring and novel conservation actions. Working with 17 cooperators in July and August, the Observatory has been running monitoring routes within Milwaukee and surrounding communities (all inside Milwaukee County’s boundaries).

In addition to counting swifts and nighthawks, we have been making fascinating behavioral observations that provide insights into swift ecology unknown to many birders. These include observations of foraging extremely high above ground to exploit ephemeral insect prey sources; flight and nesting behavior that is incompletely described in some of the literature; and breeding behavior that can be utilized by the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. More results will be reported this autumn.

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Chimney Swifts and nest (Photos, J. McCulloch [left]; I. Mitchell, N. Mitchell, and N. Barnett.)

Chimney Swifts: Why They are Important

chimney swiftphoto by Dominic Sherony
Wikimedia Commons
• Chimney Swifts have declined significantly in recent decades and need our assistance more than ever. In 2009, our northern neighbor, Canada, listed them as Threatened.

• Because of changes made to our landscape and loss of historical habitat, swifts rely almost entirely on man-made structures for nest and roost sites.  Our chimneys are their homes.

• Chimney Swifts eat nearly one third of their own weight in flying insects, including pests, every day.

• Chimney Swifts are protected by Federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916.

• Like watching a beautiful sunset, the aesthetic value of observing Chimney Swifts’ aerial acrobatics and interactions is a simple pleasure of nature.


a. If you have a masonry or clay flue-tile chimney, keep the top open and the damper closed from April through October to provide a nest site for these insect-eaters. Metal chimneys should be permanently capped to prevent birds and other wildlife from being trapped.

b. If you have your chimney cleaned, do it from November to March before the Chimney Swifts return from their winter home in South America.

c. Investigate an alternative venting system if you are converting a furnace or hot water heater to gas, leaving the chimney unlined and uncapped for the swifts.

d. Work with local conservation groups to construct Chimney Swift Towers and educate your friends and neighbors about Chimney Swifts.

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Chimney Swift Working Group in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group has held multiple meetings over the past two years, with 12 members from organizations around the state. Look for information to be posted on the WI Birding List about activities this year. If your bird club hosts a Swift Night Out event, please let the Working Group know about it so that it can help to promote it. Other projects ( "swift sits", summer breeding records for the WI Breeding Bird Atlas II ) will be announced in the coming months. Information from the WI Chimney Swift Working Group can be found at this link: http://www.wiswifts.org/