The epic journey of three young Chimney Swifts began in August 2014 when human ignorance and insensitivity disrupted the natural breeding cycle of a pair of adult Swifts. For reasons not disclosed, four young Swifts were removed from their nest, left malnourished and dehydrated during a critical time in their development. Chimney Swifts were placed on the Endangered Species list earlier this year in Nova Scotia, making this act even more reprehensible. Only those involved know the facts, and those responsible for interfering with the birds could face charges. It was at this time the young Swifts were left in the care of Dr. Helene Van Doninck of the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. These birds were less than two weeks old, their eyes still closed and their bodies not fully feathered. Unfortunately, one of the birds did not survive, but under Dr. Van Doninck’s professional care the other three persevered.
After a week of caring for the trio, Dr. Van Doninck was concerned about the future of these young Chimney Swifts. The local population of wild Chimney Swifts had already begun their migration south. Finding an active roost to release the rehabilitated birds with, when they became ready, would be paramount to their survival. Realizing their parents had nested late in the season, the initial setback faced by the young birds, and the amount of time required before they would be ready for release, Dr. Van Doninck contacted Swift Care Ontario. As a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in Chimney Swifts and other aerial insectivores, Swift Care Ontario was asked to take over their rehabilitation and eventual release in London, Ontario.
Chimney Swifts are a special and fragile bird. They are listed as an Endangered Species in Nova Scotia and as a Species At Risk in both Ontario and Quebec. Knowing this, Dr. Van Doninck, along with Carolyn Denstedt and Debbie Lefebre from Swift Care Ontario, were concerned about the time involved air lifting the birds from Nova Scotia to Southwestern Ontario. Any missed feedings and additional stress would only further compromise the young Chimney Swifts’ condition. It was agreed upon that the birds be transported to Le Nichoir Wild Bird Rehabilitation Centre in Hudson, Quebec, where Director Sue Wylie has great expertise raising Chimney Swifts.
An operation called Pilots n Paws Canada volunteered to fly the Chimney Swifts from Nova Scotia to Quebec, a 1200km flight lasting 4.5 hours. Murdo Messer, co-founder of Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, accompanied the birds ensuring they did not miss any feedings along the way. The young Swifts spent three weeks at Le Nichoir Wild Bird Rehabilitation Centre, and continued to receive the intensive care needed to compensate for their compromised start in life. While there, they were raised with a pair of Chimney Swifts already in the care of Le Nichoir.
Young Chimney Swifts raised in a rehabilitation environment require more time to become independent than those raised in the wild. As was the case in Nova Scotia, the local population of Chimney Swifts in Quebec was decreasing as the birds migrated south. It was then decided these Chimney Swifts be moved to Swift Care Ontario. Sue and Vee from Le Nichoir drove eight hours from Hudson, Quebec to London, Ontario on August 30, feeding them as necessary on route. The five Swifts (three from Nova Scotia and two from Quebec) were now in the care of Debbie, while two Common Nighthawks also transported from Quebec were put in the care of Carolyn, both from Swift Care Ontario. A chimney located at King’s College in London, Ontario, a release site used by Swift Care Ontario many times in the past, still had over over 600 Chimney Swifts roosting in it at night. This was the planned release site for these five Swifts when they were ready.
The two Chimney Swifts originating in Quebec were released on the evening of September 3 amongst the flock that occupied the chimney at King’s College. Unfortunately for the little trio from Nova Scotia, they were still not ready. Having their development stunted so early in life, they needed more time to gain weight, mature physically, and perfect the flight skills required to carry them more than 5000kms to their wintering grounds in the Amazon basin of South America.
The following week, the three young Chimney Swifts were now ready for release. It was at this time that another obstacle was thrown in front of them. The chimney occupied by so many Swifts just a few days earlier at King’s College had emptied, leaving Swift Care Ontario to search for a new location to release the Nova Scotia trio. Other chimneys in London, Ontario that historically contain large roosts of Chimney Swifts, located at the L & H Smith Fruit Company and South Secondary School, were scouted. Thanks to dedicated Swift watchers led by Nature London’s Winnie Wake, it was determined that the roost at South Secondary consisted of over 400 Chimney Swifts, making it the perfect release site. Debbie from Swift Care Ontario contacted school principal Catherine Davidson and let her know of their wishes to release the Chimney Swifts at the school. Principal Davidson and her custodial staff were more than accommodating in permitting access to school property after hours, as South Secondary prides themselves on being environmentally sound hosts for the Chimney Swifts that roost there each summer.
After five weeks of intensive care, thousands of kilometers traveled, countless hours hand feeding, and practice flights in the aviary, release day was finally here. Weather conditions were perfect as the sky was predominantly clear, and the third super moon of the year was set to rise later that evening. I met Carolyn and Debbie from Swift Care Ontario at 5:30pm at South Secondary School, with a planned release for shortly after six. Principal Davidson permitted us to go where needed in order for a successful release. It was Debbie and Carolyn’s plan to wait until some of the wild Chimney Swifts appeared and then release the Nova Scotia trio to fly up and join the group. It was anticipated that they would then circle around with the flock, grab a quick snack of insects, then descend into the chimney to roost for the night, as this is typically what happens during a Chimney Swift release.
6pm came and there were no wild Swifts to be seen. We patiently waited, talking amongst ourselves as I set up my camera gear to capture the release. More time passed and only a single wild Chimney Swift could be seen. The three Swifts to be released, still in their carrier, could hear the lone Swift high above and they began chattering back and forth. The wild Swift carried on overhead leaving the sky empty. Carolyn later spotted two Common Nighthawks passing by overhead but still no large number of Swifts. Could it be possible that this roost too had vacated in such a short period of time?
Shortly after 7pm, a few wild Chimney Swifts began to appear. Debbie deemed it time to open the enclosure, allowing the trio to fly up into the sky and join the group of wild birds circling overhead. Debbie unzipped the enclosure and one after the other the three Swifts shot straight up into the sky.
The smallest of the three birds was slightly slower to reach the same altitude as its siblings, but after flying several feet, quickly banked and joined the other two. The lowering sun illuminated these birds beautifully as they circled the sky and the silver leg band on one of the birds from the Nova Scotia trio could be seen. Immediately 40-50 Swifts appeared from what seemed like nowhere. The large group circling overhead entertained us with their aerial displays and beautiful chatters. The Nova Scotia trio quickly became part of this larger group and were no longer distinguishable. As time passed the number of Swifts continued to grow. It wasn’t long until we realized the previous night’s count of 400 birds was quite accurate. The sky was now full of Swifts, circling and chattering. We continued to watch as light faded and the birds began to rapidly descend into the chimney. After several minutes the sky was empty of Chimney Swifts, although they could still be heard softly chattering from within the chimney.
The Nova Scotia trio had successfully entered the chimney with the group and were now safe for the night. With the first step in their journey complete, three Endangered Swifts had rejoined the wild population and the next chapter in their story beings. As we grabbed our things and proceeded to leave the area, the magnificent super moon rose above the trees capping off this amazing experience.
Rehabbing Chimney Swifts requires special care, patience, time, and determination. Chimney Swifts are aerial feeders flying with their beaks open, catching insects with their large mouths. In fact, their tiny beaks make picking insects up off the ground impossible. For this reason birds being rehabbed must be hand fed. Birds are hand fed every hour, beginning as early as 6am and continuing until early evening. Chimney Swifts bond with their caregiver and that individual must feed them every hour for 14-16 hours per day, which provides the required nourishment and mimics what Swifts would naturally do in the wild. The rehabbed Swifts are provided with an artificial chimney where the hourly feedings take place. This artificial chimney not only provides the birds a place to perch vertically, a position natural to them in the wild, it also hones their skills of flying in and out of a chimney to roost. This is key at release time, so the young Chimney Swifts will successfully follow the group into the chimney to roost.
I hope this sheds a little light onto the commitment and dedication wildlife rehabilitators have for saving a species, especially those at risk. Next time you are out birding and enjoying nature remember the great lengths people go to in order to maintain its beauty. You never know, a species you are observing might have a pretty amazing story like this one behind it.
Please note, this post was revised on 9/12/2014 9:45pm, as new facts regarding the removal of the Swifts from the nest have been presented.