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XIV

THE CHIMNEY SWIFT

EVERY kind of bird is adapted to get its living in a particular way. It is strong in some respects, and weak in others. Some birds have powerful legs, but can hardly fly; others live on the wing, and can hardly walk. Of these flying birds none is more common than the chimney swift, or, as he is improperly called, the chimney swallow. No one ever saw him sitting on a perch or walking on the ground. In fact, his wings are so long, and his legs so short and weak, that if he were to alight on the ground, he would probably never be able to rise into the air again.

He hardly seems to need a description, and yet I suppose that many persons, not to say people in general, do not know him from a swallow. His color is sooty brown, turning to gray on the throat. His body, as he is seen in the air, is shaped like a bobbin, bluntly pointed at both ends. If he is carefully watched, however, it will be noticed that he spreads his tail for an instant whenever he changes suddenly the direction of his flight. In other words, he uses his tail as a rudder.

He shoots about the sky at a tremendous speed, much of the time sailing, with his long, narrow wings firmly set, and is especially lively and noisy toward nightfall. Very commonly two or three of the birds fly side by side, cackling merrily and acting very much as if they were amusing themselves with some kind of game.

They feed on the wing, and have wide, gaping mouths perfectly adapted to that purpose.

As their name implies, they build their nests and pass the night mostly in chimneys, although in the wilder parts of the country they still inhabit hollow trees. Numbers of pairs live together in a colony.

One of the chimneys of a certain house near the Charles River, in Newton, Massachusetts, has for many years been a favorite resort of swifts. I have many times visited the place to watch the birds go to roost. Little by little they gather in a flock, as twilight comes on, and then for an hour or more the whole company, hundreds in number, go sweeping over the valley in broad circles, having the chimney for a centre. Gradually the circles become narrower, and at the same time the excitement of the flock increases. Again and again the birds approach the chimney, as if they meant to descend into it. Then away they shoot for another round.

At length the going to roost actually begins. Half a dozen or a dozen of the birds drop one by one into the chimney. The rest sweep away, and when they come back, a second detachment drops in. And so the lively performance goes on till the last straggler folds his wings above the big black cavity and tumbles headlong out of sight.

The swift makes his nest of twigs, and as he cannot alight on the ground in search of them, he is compelled to gather them from the dead limbs of trees. Over and over again you will see the bird dart against such a limb, catching at a twig as he pauses for the merest instant be fore it. It is difficult to be sure whether he succeeds or not, his movements are so rapid, but it is certain that he must often fail. However, he acts upon the old motto, “Try, try again,” and in course of time the nest is built. And an extremely pretty nest it is, with the white eggs in it, the black twigs glued firmly together with the bird’s own saliva.


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