What is a Chimney Swift?

Basic ID

Chimney Swifts are dark gray-brown, swallow-like birds with long, slightly curved wings and stubby tails.  They fly with stiff, rapid wing beats.  Their call is a series of quick, chittering noises.


This small bird spends almost its entire life in flight, feeding and drinking on the wing.  Chimney Swifts nest and root in chimneys and on vertical surfaces in dim, enclosed spaces.  On migration in spring and fall, swifts can be seen at dusk swirling into large chimneys by the dozens or even thousands to roost for the night.



Long ago, Chimney Swifts used hollow trees as their “home.”  As forests were cleared, the Swift’s natural habitat was lost, but over time, they adapted to using masonry chimneys instead of hollow trees.  Unfortunately, this species is suffering sharp population declines.


The Swift’s toes are anisodactyl - three forward, one back - like those of most birds, but the Chimney Swift can swivel its back toe (its hallux) forward to help get a better grip.

Why Care About Chimney Swifts?

  • 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 up to half 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.

How Can I Help?

  • 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.

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

To find out how you can help this amazing species, visit this page.