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Don’t mess with the bird living in your chimney — it could be a federally protected species

On a late spring day,  St. Louis resident Mychal Vorhees heard an animal inside her chimney.
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
On a late spring day, St. Louis resident Mychal Vorhees heard an animal inside her chimney.

About a month ago, Mychal Voorhees heard a strange noise near her apartment.

“I was just sitting at home watching TV and I heard what sounded like a bird outside,” said Voorhees, who lives in the Saint Louis Hills neighborhood. “Then I realized it was much closer to me, that is was in the chimney, in the fireplace.”

Initially, she thought the animal was stuck in her fireplace, so she opened the damper and attempted to remove it with a broom. Then, she called her landlord, who sent a wildlife control expert to her home. The expert told her that the bird had built a nest above her fireplace. But he couldn’t remove it because it was a chimney swift, a species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

“You can’t harass them in any way, so you have to wait until the nesting season is over,” state ornithologist Sarah Kendrick said.

Chimney swifts incubate their eggs for up to 21 days. Their chicks will live in the nest for about a month.St. Louis Public Radio's Eli Chen reports on what happens when a St. Louis resident discovers that a federally protected bird is living in her chimney.

The World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park receives about a half dozen calls about chimney swifts a year. Roger Holloway, the sanctuary’s director of operations, said he basically advises residents to “do nothing.”

“Sometimes, people react almost horrified, ‘How can we possibly do nothing?’” Holloway said.

However, the people who are hit with the most inquiries about chimney swifts are animal control experts like Michael Beran, who owns and runs Wildlife Command Center. Beran, whose company fields about three or four calls per day during the breeding season, which starts in late April and ends in August, inspected Voorhees’ chimney.

“We came out and saw that it was a female chimney swift with a nest and young,” Beran said. “We fitted the damper, so that it closed tight, so that the birds can’t get inside. And also so that the creosote and the soot wouldn’t be kicked up into the house itself.”

That’s all the company can do until the nestlings are able to fly out of the chimney.

Credit Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

The chimney bird is small and often described as “flying cigars.”

“They really hold their legs into their body when they fly and their heads are not very distinct from their bodies,” Kendrick said. “So it just looks like a cigar shape with wings.”

The bird does not perch. Instead, it hangs vertically off of cliffs and rough surfaces, such as the interiors of old chimneys.

The sound chimney swifts make can be rather unusual.

“The young chicks have a unique mechanical sound that is unnatural, unworldly even. It’s a mechanical humming sound and it freaks people out,” Beran said. “When the adult is coming and going, the wing beats are so rapid it’s hard to distinguish that it’s an animal. It sounds like some kind of alien in your chimney.”

If the hatchlings become too loud, which they can in their last couple weeks in the nest, Kendrick recommends placing a piece of foam or insulation inside the damper.

But apart from the noise, the birds can benefit residents in unexpected ways.

“The good thing about chimney swifts is that all they eat are insects, mosquitos, so they’re a very beneficial bird to have around,” Holloway said.

While chimney swifts are quite common in the St. Louis area, their numbers overall are declining due to deforestation and loss of habitat here and where they overwinter in South America. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the bird as “near threatened.”

Credit Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

After the birds move out, Voorhees plans installing a cap on her chimney to prevent more animals from entering. But she’s taken a liking to her new roommates.

“I almost get excited when I hear them because i know that one of them’s come back and they’re feeding or eating, I think it’s kind of neat,” Voorhees said. “And it feels like I’ve gotten attached to them a bit. [The Wildlife Command Center technicians] were telling me they might leave in a couple days to a week. Today, they told me that and I was getting a little sentimental because I feel like I don’t want them to leave now.”

Follow Eli on Twitter:@storiesbyeli

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.