by Rex Burress


A neighbor phoned about birds in the chimney of their house. "The renters say the squeaking calls keep them awake, and they had seen birds behind the fireplace screen that had big claws and beaks. Could you give us advice on what to do?" Every nature center knows this story.

"Pick me up and I'll take a look," I said. I got my net and screen sack and prepared to venture forth, not knowing fully what to expect. Once on the nature center job in Oakland, a frantic call described an albatross walking in the parking lot. I discovered a city pigeon prancing around. Another time a baby "kingfisher" turned out to be a green heron. A large percentage of the bird reporting public doesn't know a blackbird from a crow!

The family had covered the fireplace with layers of newspapers, and I gingerly opened a corner and peaked in. There was something there all right. I could hear a little squeak and see a dim gray glob.

Boldly, as to "boldly go where no man has gone before" like James T. Kirk of Starship Enterprise, I tore away the shroud, and clinging to the fireplace screen were certainly creatures with clawed feet and sharp beaks! But truly no giants as the diminutive feet could barely clutch the screen and the beak was a pinprick affair! Swifts! The dull gray down and feather juvenile bodies gave only a general clue as to species ID, but even though they were in a chimney, they were not true Chimney Swifts that are found only in eastern America. In California, the chimney version is the Vaux's Swift, and the White-throated Swift.

I reached behind the screen and caught all five swifts with one deft swipe, showing off my considerable expertise from Bird Refuge days, and transferred them to my sack. There were also two dead birds in the ash. Now the real dilemma! What to do with five, living, breathing, future flyers of the boundless sky that suddenly required a decision re their future.

"No, we don't want to leave them in the chimney," was the general attitude. "Maybe we could put them in a box on top of the house," said another. "They are so cute; could someone take care of them," the 10-year-old girl said.

"There is very little chance the parents will attend them away from the nest site," I said. "Let me handle it. Maybe I'll take them to the Feather River Nature Center and put them on the roof. The swifts of the nearby bridge might help out" - although I knew that was a long shot in the dark.

When I got home, I took those five swifts into the backyard olive orchard for photography, and I was surprised to see them one by one go fluttering across the field on young wings in the light of a world they had never seen before! They soon were grounded again, and I poured water down their mouths and tried to lift them into the shrubbery. "A fleeting chance," I thought, and I left them to the throes of the universe and the perils of the night and their destiny. Some baby birds just don't make it, in spite of the parent's colossal efforts in processing the eggs and feeding the helpless blobs into existence. How many hundreds (yea thousands!) of trips had the parents made to catch elusive insects and bring them home??? And now it came down to being torn asunder from their dark home by the forces of life and deposited into a jungle of alien beasts.

Sometimes I want to cry about the innocent animal tragedies of life, but usually end up more enchanted about the quaint existence every species contends with in occupying distinctive niches in the fabric of the environment.

I thought about the predicaments the swift species of birds undergo in pursuing life in a cave. The adults are flying wedges in the vastness of the sky, catching their food in flight, and slinking to those cursed chimney shadows only to raise a family or take a rest. They fly as if they want to fly forever, and disdain the reproductive directive to sink to lower realms in a dusty crevice where some gene maker of Existence willed them to be.

I thought of those babies born in some puny nest anchored in the blackened chimney in the pitch dark living for the sound of the parent returning with some food. Like mountain climbers with rope and steel prongs, I could imagine them slowly venturing forth on the sheer brick cliffs feeling their way through the dark abyss. What signaled the day when they would make that final ascension and squeeze out of that fetid chamber into the exuberance of life?

I mused about that swift family and their adaptation to aerial aspirations, and wonder why they have attained that rigorous lifestyle. When I checked the bird guide book for species definition, I found the swift family 16 pages apart from the swallow family. The swifts were next to the Apodiformes goatsuckers while the hummingbirds, kingfishers, and skylarks wedged the swallow family Hirundinidae. I don't know why. Swifts and swallows apparently do the identical things of sailing in the sky catching insects. Whippoorwills and other goatsuckers simply lay eggs on the ground with no apparent intentions of nesting in chimneys or caves, but all swallows, swifts, poorwills catch insects in flight.

Just know that whatever your station in life, some habitat specialization makes you special, and if you can't soar in the angelical sky, you can probe the wonders of the earth and discover special places and endless beauty in the landscape of life. "Be a bush, if you can't be a bird...."

 © 2000 Rex Burress
July 22, 2000