Not Much is Sillier Than Feeding Young Chimney Swifts!

Adventures of a Volunteer – by Amy Sanders
Chimney swifts are an amazingly complex, yet endangered species of migratory birds (federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916).  In fact, I was stunned to learn that while they nest here (eastern North America) in the winter, then these tiny birds migrate all the way to Peru!  Interestingly, chimney swifts cannot perch, or even stand on their legs.  What they can do, is hang.  When not hanging (from chimney walls, trees, or in our case, nets), they are in flight.  All day long the adults fly.  They eat on the fly (consuming 1/3 of their weight per day in flying insects).  They even get sticks for their nests on the fly, they break the stick off as they fly by!
Formerly the American Swift, these birds were renamed as their forest habitat was cleared and they developed the habit of nesting almost exclusively in chimneys.  A half nest is “glued” to the wall of the chimney (with their saliva), and eggs are laid.  The fledglings will hang on the inside of the chimney being fed by their parents until they are ready to fully feed on their own (about a month after hatching).  Somehow, 17 of these youngsters came into Wild Care at a very young age.  Aside from brief glimpses, my first alert of their presence came in the sound of a breaking refrigerator.  You know it, that screeching sound a belt of some form of machinery makes in its death throes.  But soon I came to realize that it was the baby swifts making this raucous noise (not that the refrigerator is feeling well mind you, but it wasn’t the source of that noise).  Every single time someone walked past them, the riotous sound would shoot forth, and everyone would laugh at the ridiculousness.
But things got really absurd when they went into the shed. Both aviaries being full, they ended up hanging from a large net hung in the squirrel shed (emptied of squirrels). On a regular baby bird feeding shift, Jennifer decided to have someone show me how to feed these characters. Not too different from other birds, but a few things to note. One, watch where you put your feet. Youngsters who fall off the net can strand and flop around on the floor (and this shed is a bit dark) until they are “hung” again, on the wall or the nets. Two, mealworms have to be soaked in water because this is how the young are hydrated. Jennifer’s directions are, “Make sure each bird gets at least 5 mealworms.” Got it. How hard can that be?
A bit of training can go a long way for a volunteer’s confidence (whereas real experience can take it away just as fast!).
So, I headed into the shed on my own, wet worms in tow, full of confidence. But this turned out to be the height of absurdity to accomplish. Young swifts do not stay put. Feed one and everyone flies into a pile so as to soon make it very hard to figure out who has been fed and who has not. Everyone was rowdily screaming, and within a couple of minutes, I found myself wearing a fair number of them (literally hanging on my clothes and in my hair). Soon the entire place had erupted into screaming shrieks and a flutter of practicing wings, knocking each other out of the way to get as many worms as they can. Five worms each? Seriously?

My solution? Feed until the ruckus quieted down. Feed anyone, any amount, as much as they wanted, until I could hear myself think again. Worms to birds on the nets, worms to birds on the walls, worms to birds on my shirt, worms to birds on my head, pick up birds on the floor and put them on the wall, more worms, worms, WORMS!  Did I mention youngsters, like youngsters everywhere, throw a fair amount of their food around?  

Alas, about 20 minutes later there was relative peace. I departed to feed more civilized birds. 45 minutes later, repeat!

I love working at Wild Care, I truly do. The staff collectively has a staggering amount of knowledge and I learn new things every single time I go there.  And, one never knows what one will encounter next! 😉

Above photo credit: Alabama Wildlife Center: Sandra Allinson, Assistant Rehabilitation Director

Below Photo Credit: Internet photo from Reddit


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