Stockbridge — Like so many other visitors to the Berkshires, chimney swifts stop at The Red Lion Inn. Luckily, they don’t need rooms. They’re happy in the chimney.
Every evening these days at about 7:45, the swifts start coming down from the highest reaches of the skies, where they have been feasting on insects –- black flies, mosquitos and whatever else is hatching — and begin circling around this one particular chimney. Riding on currents of air, they swoop around in large figure eights, some in groups of four, some in groups of eight or ten, and then in larger and larger groups as the sky darkens. Suddenly, as if somebody gave the signal, they all fold their wings and drop into the chimney.
Chad McCormick, a native of Stockbridge and an exceedingly knowledgeable self-taught naturalist, discovered the swifts last summer. He began to notice them congregating at the chimney during the first week of August 2013.
“I just kept waiting and watching. I couldn’t believe what I’d found. I watched for weeks and weeks before I said anything,” he said.
The chimney is just above the courtyard that serves as an outdoor restaurant for Red Lion in warm weather.
“I couldn’t believe that all these people were sitting at their tables,” Chad continues, “under their umbrellas while one of the most amazing things in nature was happening, and not a single person looked up. People are so out of touch with the natural world.”
Chimney swifts measure 5.25 inches long, with a wingspan of 14 inches, and a total weight of .81 ounces (23 grams). They look like cigars with wings. Traditionally, they winter in the Amazon Basin. In the spring they fly up to southern Canada, and in the fall they fly back down to the Amazon again. McCormick wonders whether this is a way station for them now on the way to Canada, or if they plan to spend the summer here. This spring, he noticed them again for the first time on April 28, and he has seen them every night since. Right now, the community totals about 80 birds. Last August, McCormick says, they totaled in the hundreds. And then, one day in the fall, they were gone.
McCormick marvels at these birds. Except when they congregate at night in the chimney, these birds never touch the ground. They fly constantly. On the fly, they pick up nesting material off trees. They possess site fidelity, the ability to come back to the same place year after year, all the way from the Amazon to Canada and back again.
Their feathers have adapted to their nights in the chimneys. Little spikes protrude from the ends of their tail feathers. When the get into the chimneys, they flap their wings and press themselves against the wall. They roost vertically. Their feet grasp the wall of the chimney, and the pins at the ends of their tail feathers anchor them and prevent them from slipping down. Although only one pair of swifts will be nesting in that chimney; all the rest in the community snuggle up together to preserve warmth.
So why this chimney, or any chimney? Despite their name, chimney swifts didn’t always nest in chimneys. They used to nest in the high trees of old growth forests. If the top of a tree fell off, a comfy hollow would develop at the top of the tree, perfect for a nest. When trees grew scarcer, the swifts adapted to chimneys.
But now, there aren’t enough chimneys either. Look around and you’ll see that most chimneys have screens on them to keep birds and bats out. Or they’re filled up in the middle with vents from gas stoves. Loss of habitat has caused Canada to designate the chimney swallows as “of special concern,” which is one step away from “endangered.”
And that concerns Chad McCormick.
“If anything happens to this chimney at the Red Lion Inn,” he worries, “a whole population of birds could be wiped out. Knowing what I know, I don’t want to just stand around and not tell anyone.“