(HOST) The seasonal migration of birds is well underway, and commentator Ted Levin has been thinking about a family of chimney swifts he encountered this summer.
(LEVIN) Banding birds is easy. Recovering the bands is not. Naturalists waited several decades before a chimney swift band came home to the American Museum of Natural History. The wintering grounds of the swifts remained a mystery until a team of anthropologists near the upper Amazon encountered a native tribe outfitted in bird-band jewelry. To the natives, who had originally netted the swifts for food, the shiny, malleable bands – undeniable gifts from God – were a sign of prosperity.
To the biologists, the return of the shiny, malleable bands – an ornithological blessing of the highest order – were a sign that the Western Hemisphere was one large ecologically integrated system of forests and grasslands and cerulean seas.
In late July, I opened the heat-duct in the Rice’s Mills Community Center building, and found three infant chimney swifts, a black bulge of sprouting feathers, plump and noisy, like an animated spot of soot, clutching the bottom side of the chimney.
Their nest, a half cup of pine twigs cemented together by bird spit and glued to the side of the chimney, had loosened and fallen. One broken egg lay on the carpet of guano and creosote. The chicks would scream whenever a parent flew down the chimney to regurgitate a ball of insects, stuck together with the same glutinous saliva that fixed the nest.
For two weeks, I listened to the chicks – they would also squawk whenever anyone stepped too close to the grating. Some mornings I sat out side and watched the parent birds cut arcs across the sky, high above the forest canopy, gathering flying insects and ballooning spiders in their cavernous mouths. Their flight was well . . . swift and direct and perpetual. From dawn to dusk, except to feed their chicks, the birds never stopped flying.
Swifts are built for sustained flight. They eat, drink, bath, and mate on the wing. They never perch . . . ever. They clutch, all four toes pointed forward, vertical not horizontal. Before the advent of chimneys, swifts nested and roosted communally in hollow trees; ten thousand birds or more rose from the centers of ancient sycamores or chestnuts into the forest gloom like great black clouds.
Once, I watched a funnel-shaped flock of chimney swifts enter an elementary school chimney in eastern Tennessee. More than a thousand swirling birds descended into the chimney, one bird at a time. At dawn, the flock emerged, one bird at a time, circling, circling, circling, until the last bird was out, then the flock departed.
By the last Friday in July the Rice’s Mills Community Center had fallen silent. The swiftlets had fledged. They joined their parents above the Connecticut River, back and forth, non stop, mouths agape straining planktonic insects out of the air.
The swifts are gone now, enroute to Amazonia. Wind birds, whose migrations make the world seem smaller.
This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.
Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.