Ask any gardener if they feed birds and chances are you will get a resounding yes.
No garden is really complete without birdsong. We miss it in winter, just as much as we miss the bright blossoms of salvia, cosmos and coneflower. When we first start developing our gardening skills, we aren't really looking for birds, but then over time, it becomes evident that birds are enjoying the gardens, too.
Once we realize the birds are there, we try to make them happy. We add water features, beginning with a simple birdbath. Then our water feature interests grow to include barrel fountains, small ponds and by the time we've gotten our feet wet - no pun intended - we acquire fish, but that's another topic for another column.
We start buying plants that birds like. Plants that produce berries and seeds to help supplement the multitudes of feeders we've placed throughout the garden.
We keep binoculars on our windowsill and own at least two birding field guides. We notice the different birds that come to our garden. Before long, we are counting and sharing with our fellow gardeners the numbers of chickadees, cardinals, junkos, etc. at the feeders that morning.
So it shouldn't have come as a shock to my husband when I said he should build a chimney swift tower.
We were sitting at the kitchen table and I spun my laptop around so he could see it on the screen. It was a tall, narrow tower, and if done correctly, would make an attractive feature in the garden.
Chimney swifts are small. They are coal black with pale throats and curved wings that are built for aerial feats of strength. These little birds have to be adept at flying because they aren't capable of perching. They fly from the time they leave their hollow tree or chimney until they return at the end of the day. They eat on the wing and they eat the things we don't like, such as mosquitoes. Chimney swifts can eat up to one-third their body weight in mosquitoes each day.
The reason they are close to our hearts is because nearly 20 years ago, my husband and I rehabbed five chimney swift babies after they lost their nest in a nasty storm. The nest couldn't be reattached to the inside of the chimney. The babies were huddled at the bottom, inside a fireplace of a friend's house, and she asked me to take the baby birds. It was a weekend and we couldn't find a licensed bird rehabber.
Over the weekend, we fed them wet dog food soaked in water and rolled into balls small enough to fit down their throats without choking. Early Monday morning I continued trying to find a rehabber, but the closest we came was a small animal expert at West Branch State Park. She confirmed there were no available bird rehabbers and her own rehabilitation facility was filled. She would be happy to give us advice, she said. We were on our own to save these baby birds. The animal expert put us in touch with Paul and Georgean Kyle of Austin, Texas, and before long we were feeding these baby birds a dozen mealworms every hour, 12 hours a day for six weeks.
When they began to fly, the husband built them a huge flight cage on our patio and covered it with window screening. Before long, we knew more than we ever thought we would about chimney swifts, and the birds were finally old enough to release.
We didn't release them all at once. Eggs are laid every two days and the babies mature at about that rate. It took more than a week get all five birds released, and for a few weeks afterward, they came back to visit us, often buzzing the husband's head while he mowed the lawn and once clinging to our daughter's shirt when she stood in the center of the yard.
Now in summer, we see chimney swifts flying overhead near dusk, chattering as they do their aerial acrobatics, plucking insects out of the air. Our house doesn't have the proper chimney to accommodate swift nests, and this type of construction is the reason their habitat is endangered.
We gardeners put up bat houses, butterfly houses and bird houses to attract wildlife to our gardens. It makes sense to attract chimney swifts as well.
For information on chimney swifts and how to build your own tower, go to www.chimneyswifts. org.