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It’s time to count Chimney and Vaux’s Swifts

Vaux's Swifts descend into the chimney of Chapman Elementary School, in Portland, Oregon, to roost for the night, September 28, 2009. Photo by Kat+Sam.
Vaux’s Swifts descend into the chimney of Chapman Elementary School, in Portland, Oregon, to roost for the night, September 28, 2009. Photo by Kat+Sam.

Were you out counting swifts this past weekend? The popular late-summer event A Swift Night Out is taking place now.

A Swift Night Out is a continent-wide effort to raise awareness about and encourage interest in two of North America’s swift species — Chimney Swift and Vaux’s Swift. The count takes place over the second weekend of August and again the second weekend of September (September 11, 12, 13).

You know these birds:

High-flying, chittering Chimney Swift is a familiar sight in skies over the entire eastern half of the United States and southern Canada each summer. It spends the winter in South America.

Vaux’s Swift, pictured at right and below, is nearly identical to Chimney Swift but slightly smaller. It breeds from eastern and western Mexico south to Panama and on the Yucatan Peninsula and in northern Venezuela as well as in the Pacific Northwest, from southeastern Alaska to California. Most members of the northern subspecies, our Vaux’s Swifts, winter from central and southern Mexico south through Guatemala and Honduras.

Both species are declining, Chimney Swift at the alarming rate of about 2.2 percent a year from 1966 to 2010.

A Swift Night Out takes place in the window of time after the birds have finished raising their young and before they embark on their fall migrations, when the birds congregate in communal roosts.

You can find a roost site by watching the sky at dusk for areas where swifts are feeding, and then looking around for a nearby tall shaft, chimney, or similar structure. Roosts may consist of an extended family group containing half a dozen birds or so, but large roosts can be spectacular, hosting hundreds or even thousands of swifts.

Vaux’s Swift in Penticton, British Columbia, by Laure Wilson Neish.
Vaux’s Swift in Penticton, British Columbia, by Laure Wilson Neish.

Participation in a swift watch is fun and easy: Simply observe the roost starting about 30 minutes before sunset and estimate the number of swifts that enter. Then, after the last swift has entered the structure, fill out the online reporting form available on the website of the Chimney Swift Conservation Association (formerly the Driftwood Wildlife Association).

You can count on your own, but it’s more fun to watch with a group. We encourage you to contact a local Audubon chapter or bird club; there may be a count organized near you already, and the organizers would be happy to have you join in the fun.

The Audubon Society of Portland, for example, counts Vaux’s Swifts throughout the whole month of September. Audubon Minnesota started their count at the beginning of August, but you’re not too late for Phase 2, which will take place August 28-30. And Houston Audubon will host its count, called Swifts Over Houston, on three nights: August 25, September 4, and September 18. There are many others.

A Swift Night Out was inspired by John Connors, former coordinator of the Naturalist Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and is now administered by Paul Kyle and Georgean Kyle of the Chimney Swift Conservation Association.

See the results from last year’s Swift Night Out.

eBird maps show Vaux’s Swift locations in winter and spring.

David Sibley: How to tell Vaux’s Swift from Chimney Swift.

Ever fewer chimneys may force Chimney Swifts to return to large, hollow trees.

 

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