It’s their twittering high overhead that usually snags my ears while I’m thinking about other things, such as how to persuade my corgi Millie not to bark so much or how to train her to make me a martini. “Yes Millie, ‘All I do is dream of you, the whole night through…’” (Thank you Arthur Freed.)
Chimney Swifts, those cigars with wings, are elusive and therefore magical to me. Their airborne scribbling is definitely regular West Village summer fare, but, confoundingly, I’m not certain whether they actually have invested in neighborhood real estate or are only destination diners in these friendly skies. I like to think that their stick and mud nests are clutching the walls inside some prime brownstone chimneys.
Bleecker, Christopher, Greenwich, and Bethune Streets seem to be the fuzzy limits of my sightings. Waiting for the M11 around dusk (sans Millie) is a great vantage point.
From what I’ve read, Swifts spend so much time in the air that their feet are barely used anymore – like the bound feet of ancient Chinese princesses. Swifts eat on the wing (thousands and thousands of bugs), bathe on the wing, date and mate on the wing. It’s even thought that they can turn off part of their brain so that they can sleep on the wing! What a breakthrough that would be if addled New Yorkers could learn that trick.
Millie is glaring at me. Swiftly is not Millie’s mode. When it’s hot, sitting down in the shade is preferred. Or when it’s raining or even slightly wet on the sidewalk, a disdainful pan-directional sniff and a retreat to return inside to watch black and white movie classics is more Millie’s pace.
Until I saw my first Chimney Swift as an adult, in my mind they were Chimney Sweeps like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. I had visions of dusty sprites with bristled wing brushes flittering above the rooftops, occasionally dipping down a “chim-chiminey” and out of a bedroom fireplace where some lucky child was taking A Spoonful of Sugar.
Perhaps the vestigial anatomical feature from this fantasy is the little bristles that stick out from their stubby tails. I wonder if Millie feels kinship with them because of their stubby tails.
I’m fascinated by their feet just as I am fascinated by birds that have evolved so that they can’t fly. Penguins make sense to me because they seem to have made an even trade using their wings to swim instead. Millie smiles in camaraderie. Apparently Swifts’ feet work well enough to hang from the bricks inside of a chimney but are nearly useless to walk, hop, sit on a branch, or play Crazy Eights. Weird.
Chimney Swifts are indeed swift. In fact, I am indeed impatient to stand on a corner waiting to figure out where they’re going.
Still, I just like knowing that they’re there. Millie concurs.