"What is that?" It's a question I don't mind asking myself when I'm birding in a beautiful park or on a sandy beach but not when I catch sight of a black blob lying in the alley behind my house. The answer, I realized as soon as I stepped out of my car, was: "It's a Chimney Swift."
I knew right away that the bird was in trouble. Chimney Swifts never willingly land on the ground or even a branch. They can't. Their legs are extremely short. They can only cling to walls or other vertical surfaces, including the insides of chimneys, where they nest. What they lack in leg strength though, they make up for on the wing. As the name implies, swifts are fast. They've been clocked at more than 100 mph, according to Ted Cable's charming story, "The Bird in Your Chimney," in our February 2003 issue.
I see swifts virtually every day in the summer twittering away high overhead, but I had never seen one so close. I bent down and picked up the bird. It didn't try to fly, but it was alert. I assumed it had collided with one of the many power lines above the alley.
I decided to take it to the Wisconsin Humane Society. (Last month, Chuck, Ernie, Jessica, and I participated in the society's Avian Odyssey to support its Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.) Thanks to the center, I knew what to do.
The good folks at the center coordinate a program in Milwaukee each spring and fall that rescues birds that hit windows. They call it WIngs: Wisconsin Night Guardians for Song Birds. At a training session for volunteers, wildlife manager Scott Diehl described how to transport an injured bird: Put a cloth towel in the bottom of a paper grocery bag, put the bird inside, and close the top of the bag. (The towel gives the bird something to cling to.) And on the drive to the rehab center, turn the radio off to avoid further stressing the bird.
As I stood in the alley holding the bird, however, I wondered how I would manage to get a bag and a towel, which were in my house. It didn't occur to me that I could put the bird in the grass and it would probably stay. But it soon squirmed out of my grasp and flew to the ground next to my neighbor's garage. I ran inside, grabbed the supplies, and went back to the bird. I laid it in the bag, turned the car radio off, and was on my way.
At the center, I handed the bag to clinic administrator Mike Larson. He whisked the patient away and asked me to fill out an intake form. It felt very much like an emergency room. Staffers were focused, professional, and calm. After a minute or two, Mike returned and said the bird was in shock but didn't appear to have any broken bones. They would give it an anti-inflammatory drug and food and perform another exam to check for fractures. I left knowing the swift was in good hands.
Swifts are not brought in too often. Of the 5,000 wild animals cared for in 2006, 11 were Chimney Swifts.
Mike later told me that the bird was still in shock but was otherwise OK. He emailed photos of it being held by a staff member (above left) and of it clinging to a cloth in its incubator (right). Staffers fed it every two hours and kept a close eye on it.
A few days later, he sent great news: The swift recovered and was released. It is pictured at the moment it was set free at the top of this post.
Now, when I watch swifts flying above my neighborhood each evening, I can't help but wonder if my bird is one of them. — M.M.