Special to the Courier
FORSYTH — The chittering sound of chimney swifts will begin to grow this month then fade to silence by early November as the fall migration increases swift populations in Georgia before drawing the small, speedy birds south to winter in the upper Amazon Basin.
"Most are gone by mid-October and all … by early November," said Todd Schneider, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division.
Sometimes, the gathering is memorable as chimney swifts crowd into roosts. Schneider recalled seeing a swarm of "flying cigars" form a living vortex as they swirled down into the large chimneys of an old building in Savannah years ago.
The seasonal exchange is less dramatic for most Georgia residents.
Young swifts fledge in mid-summer and the groups of four to five birds now circling fireplace chimneys and snagging airborne insects are probably family units, Schneider said.
The link between homes and chimney swifts is crucial. The species that once depended on tree hollows for nesting and roosting has long since adapted to chimneys and other man-made structures, a change prodded by the loss of natural sites through deforestation.
But residents can help:
• Leave chimneys suitable for nesting and roosting uncapped from March through September. Appropriate flues will be made of stone, firebrick or masonry tiles with mortared joints, materials the swifts can cling to with their strong feet and four sharp claws.
• Cap chimneys that have metal flues when they are not in use. Chimney swifts cannot grip the metal sides. Covering the top decreases the chance wildlife will get trapped in the shaft.
• Use swift-friendly materials when building chimneys.
• Let older buildings and old home-place chimneys stand if they are used by the birds and pose no hazards.
Proper maintenance of fireplace chimneys also is important. Chimneys should be professionally cleaned of any flammable creosote residue by early March, before the swifts return from South America to nest. Those nests, described by Schneider as a bundle of twigs about half the size of a man’s palm, are not considered a fire hazard.
Homeowners should close their fireplace damper during the nesting season. This helps keep birds from flying into the home, nestlings from falling into the fireplace and sound from transmitting between the chimney and interior of the house. Foam bedding or a similar material can be placed above the damper to further reduce noise.
The louder feeding calls of hungry young swifts, however, do not last long. The tradeoff for homeowners is enjoying the sights and outdoors sounds, as well as the insect-zapping appetites, of these agile flyers.
Georgians can help conserve chimney swifts and other animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats, by buying wildlife license plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. They can also donate to the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Brunswick (912-264-7218) or Forsyth (478-994-1438) or. Sightings of chimney swifts numbering in the hundreds or thousands can be reported.