A Happy Ending

The last remaining swifts are still lingering in Manitoba with birds still being counted into chimneys in Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Selkirk. Well done everyone involved! We will give a comprehensive update soon.

However, the subject of this blog is of a swift rescue par excellent by Bird Studies Canada’s own Christian Artuso. If you cast your mind back to a previous blog, we left it with a story about Christian rescuing a swift from a chimney in a private household in Tuxedo. The story went as follows:

‘An adult bird had slipped down through the gap in the damper and chimney and could not get back up. I was able to very carefully use my two (large) cupped hands to coax the bird upward to the bottom of the damper (having covered the fireplace glass with black plastic and poking my head through it). The swift perched upside down clinging to the bottom of the damper for a split second and from there i gently coaxed it through the damper gap.  Once through the gap the swift flew straight up and straight out – no signs of damage to the wings and clearly no impediment to flight.. impressive in fact. During this process chicks were audible but i could only see one wall of the chimney and could not see the nest…’

That was the 25th July. On the 27th Christian and then Frank and Jacquie Machovec returned to monitor the adults to ensure they were still actively feeding the chicks. Christian reported at 2:52pm:

‘Things are looking good. the adults have been in and out of the chimney at least three times so it looks like they have found their babies. I will come by after 5 pm to check again and I can update you then but more than likely the plan of attack will be to leave the parents to do the job…’

Everything seemed fine. Christian noted at 5pm that adults were still entering and exiting as normal. When the owners of the house returned home from work that evening and chatted with Christian outside, they decided to go in and just check that everything was ok in the fireplace.

And a good job they checked! Here again Christian takes up the story:

After Frank and Jacquie had found a good pattern of entries and exits in the late morning and early afternoon, I went back at 16:30 and observed two entry/exit cycles between then and 17:30. On both occasions one adult entered and left again within 7 minutes. The family came home around 17:30 and I greeted them in the driveway.  I suggested we check the fireplace just in case, thinking that after doing that I could go home and call it a day. Well, I was horrified to see baby swifts in the fireplace.

 Not knowing how long they had been there since slipping through the damper gap a second time I decided to act quickly. I put two swiftlets in a box and left one clinging to the fireplace wall (far enough out of my way) and then reached my head in to look up with a flashlight. I could not see any gap in the sponge, paper and cardboard I had stuffed between the damper and the wall but obviously something was not right. Removing the sponges and paper I found that there were five baby swifts in total since one was clinging on the brick wall half way up that I had not seen previously. Since none of the babies looked injured in any way I hatched a new plan to try to get all the babies to cling to the wall and then somehow to try to force the jammed damper into a closed position.

This was not easy at all! The chimney was slightly tapered above the damper and I needed to get the babies above the taper (to maximise the chances that the adults would feed them) and then I needed to encourage them to leave my hand and grab the wall. This meant I had to jam my head right into the chimney with eyes closed due to all the falling soot, carefully cupping a baby swift in one hand, as I slid my arm through the narrow damper gap all the way to my shoulder. I got several scrapes and bruises, especially on my inner biceps doing this but it was the only way to get my arm in high enough.  One by one, I picked up the babies and coaxed them onto the wall (the same wall as their sibling “on high” assuming it was the best seat in the house). Their gripping power was staggeringly strong for such little creatures but their reluctance to leave my hand was also noticeable. When they finally latched onto the wall I had to hold my finger against their back and gently back my hand away. It took some time but finally I could see all five clinging to the wall in what I considered reasonably good positions. The next trick was to try to move the damper into the closed position by scratching away as much soot as possible and gently wiggling it back and forth. Crystal brought a screwdriver and some WD40. I didn’t use the WD40 in the end because, after much scraping and wiggling, I got the damper loose enough that we could turn it into the closed position. It still doesn’t work by turning the knob alone but it opened and closed with Crystal turning the knob and me pulling on it from inside the fireplace. What a relief that was. To be absolutely sure, I wedged a sponge under the damper and we made sure it was good and locked in place. Just before triple checking and closing the damper, I noticed that two of the baby swifts had climbed upwards, one of them had made almost a foot of vertical gain and the other an inch or two. All five were cling to the wall. This was a good sign.

 When all was said and done, I was completely black – hilariously so in fact. My face was as black as though someone had smeared it liberally with shoe polish and my hair was looking like a sooty grey Afro-frizz. I can tell you that when I caught a glimpse of myself in the car mirror I got a shock! Rather than audition for a black and white minstrel show, I went home for a LONG shower and a whole lot of scrubbing!

Once a little more respectable, I went back at 19:20 and observed one adult enter at 19:25 and exit 13 minutes later. Then at 19:55 two adults entered the chimney almost simultaneously. One exited after three and a half minutes but the other had not exited by 20:20 when I decided to leave. Obviously the adults are feeding and that is the most important thing. I couldn’t stand really close to the chimney and watch the top at the same time so I could not hear them; however, the pattern of entries and exits throughout the day (thanks to Frank and Jacquie for great work monitoring) and after the intervention made me feel confident we had given them the best shot we could. A confab with Barb confirmed that the pattern of entries and exits is good for chicks of this age. Fingers crossed none got dehydrated in the fireplace and that all five make it through!’

Following this, Christian, Frank, Jacquie and on one occasion, Tim, took up the mantle of monitoring the swifts, checking everything was ok. During this period all reports were sent to Barb and Rob Stewart and they gave some brilliant interpretation of the behaviour being observed. The good news was that somewhere around August 11th and 12th Crystal, the homeowner stopped hearing the chicks in the chimney and they fledged (we have since confirmed this from the contents of the chimney).

This success would not have happened without the support of Crystal Dalgleish and her family and we were delighted to hand over one of our legendary plaques. We will also work with the family to fix the damper.

Thanks also to Frank, Jacquie, Rob, Barb and of course Christian

–Tim Poole

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The Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative (MCSI) aims to understand the causes behind the decline in Chimney Swift populations and help reverse the trend.