Common Swift: Medium-sized swift, dark brown overall with white chin and dark, deeply forked tail. Bill is black, legs and feet are gray. Swift, dashing flight on stiff, rapidly beating wings, alternating with gliding. Can reach speeds of 137 mph and spends most of its life in midair.
Range and Habitat
Common Swift: Found from Western Europe to eastern Asia and from Scandinavia and Siberia to North Africa, Himalayas, and central China. Can be found throughout this range during the breeding season and, following migration, spends the winter months in Southern Africa, from Zaire and Tanzania south to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Prefers areas with trees, or buildings, with open spaces.
The taxonomic order APODIFORMES (pronounced a-poh-dih-FOR-meez) is made up of four families of birds that occur on all continents except for Antarctica and includes the glittering hummingbirds, the strange owlet-nightjars, and the swifts.
The Apodidae (pronounced a-POH-dih-dee) family is composed of one hundred and one species of swifts in nineteen genera found nearly throughout the world.
Twenty-five species of the Apodidae in nine genera have occurred in North America. Among these are included the Chimney Swift, the White-throated Swift, and the mysterious Black Swift.
Like their names, swifts are known for their rapid flight. Aerialists such as the Chimney Swift are often seen in the skies above towns and cities as they spend hours on the wing, twittering and foraging in the sky.
The Chimney Swift has been called the “flying cigar”; a fairly accurate description of the shape of its tubular body, short tail, rounded head, and long, thin pointed wings. Most swifts share this body shape with slight differences in their wings and tails. Their legs are extremely short and their small feet adapted to clinging on vertical perches. The bills of swifts are also extremely short with wide gapes.
Swifts have dark plumages, either black or dark brown with gray highlights. Some species have white markings on the body and face, but most have very similar dark plumages which, when combined with their fast flight, can make them difficult to identify.
Swifts occur in the skies above a variety of North American habitats except for the boreal zone and the tundra. In the eastern United States and Canada, the Chimney Swift is the only commonly occurring species and is very common due to it having become adapted to nesting in chimneys and other human-made structures. It is replaced on the west coast by the Vaux’s Swift, and in the Rocky Mountains by the White-throated Swift. In the Pacific Northwest, the Black Swift occurs where waterfalls provide nesting sites.
Although the White-throated Swift is a short distance migrant, other North American species migrate to Central and South America.
Swifts are social birds that typically nest in colonies and are often seen foraging in flocks. Foraging takes place on the wing with birds fluttering high overhead and quickly flying back and forth to harvest “aerial plankton” – the multitude of insects and other arthropods blown into the air by winds and essentially “trapped” in the sky by updrafts. Before and during rainstorms, swifts fly lower to capture insects that are likewise flying lower.
While other swifts are common, the Black Swift has suffered population declines. Although it isn’t endangered yet, conservationists are concerned because these declines have occurred in a core area of its range (British Columbia) and very little is known about its natural history, including its wintering range, that would help to formulate implement conservation plans.
The Black Swift nests and roosts behind waterfalls. Since these birds are often too difficult to see as they forage high up in the air, a good way to see this species is to watch for them zipping in and out of one of their waterfall roosting sites at dawn or dusk.