Neotropical Swifts (by Renata Biancalana)
The Neotropics are home for 32 species of swifts that occur in the Americas. Though they are widespread and many are considered common, we barely know the life of most of these incredible birds. Swifts are divided in two main groups (subfamilies), the Cypseloidinae and the Apodinae. Whereas the species from the Cypseloidinae group are restricted to the Americas, the Apodinae are globally distributed. One of the main differences between these groups is related to their breeding habits, since the Cypseloidinae don’t use saliva in their nest construction and are often associated with waterfalls and caves. Swifts are all strict insectivores, so they are in many degrees threatened by the use of pesticides. In South America it is believed that some species have a different seasonal migration from the traditional north-south system studied in Europe and North America, meaning that they possibly migrate within South America in a longitudinal range.
All swift species are highly dependent of forests to breed and roost, and when they don’t find their resources in nature, they can be found using human constructions such as chimneys, tunnels and ceilings as an alternative. The South American savannahs in Central and North regions of Brazil and in southern Venezuela, for example, are home to Neotropical Palm Swifts, that use native Mauritia palm leaves to place their nests. Lesser swallow-tailed Swifts, on the other hand, make their nests attached to tree trunks and, if you don’t look carefully, they can be easily mistaken as a long fluffy sock hanging 20 m above the ground. Swifts from the genus Chaetura, such as the Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), are the most common swifts to use chimneys as nest and roosting sites, so they frequently can be seen in urban environments. Cypseloidinae swifts usually nest in colonies, not rare with thousands of individuals, and use crevices on rock walls to build their nests, usually made of moss and ferns. Most Cypselodinae swifts don’t have sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females look the same.
White-chinned Swift (Cypseloides cryptus)
The White-chinned Swift (Cypseloides cryptus) has a wide range that goes from Mexico up to Bolivia, and can be found breeding in the Brazilian Amazon. It is very similar to the Sooty Swift (which occurs in eastern Brazil), with dark brown plumage, except that it has a distinctive white chin. Their breeding period begins between the months of June and July, after the beginning of the rainy season and can last up to late August and September. They use crevices and rock walls near or behind small waterfalls to roost and nest. Their clutch size is of 1 egg/nestling.
Sooty Swift (Cypseloides fumigatus)
The Sooty Swift (Cypseloides fumigatus) has an extensive distribution in South America, and is found in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. It has a short, square tail and relatively long wings compared to the body, with dark brown plumage. Their breeding period begins between the months of October and November, after the beginning of the rainy season and can last up to late May. They usually build their nests on rock walls near or behind small waterfalls forming small colonies, from 4 to 10 individuals. Clutch size is of 1 egg/nestling and average nestling time in the nest is 56 days.
Great Dusky Swift (Cypseloides senex)
The Great Dusky Swift (Cypseloides senex) also has an extensive distribution in South America, and is found in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. It is a medium sized swift, with the body covered in dark brown plumage, and the head covered with pale gray fringes, which gives them an aspect of “old” (in Portuguese its name is “taperuçu-velho”, or “old or elderly swift”). Their breeding period begins between the months of October and November, after the beginning of the rainy season.
They usually build their nests on rock walls near or behind waterfalls forming large colonies, many mixed colonies with White-collared Swifts, some with more than one million individuals.
White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris)
The White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris) is one of the largest swifts that exits, and is widely distributed in the Americas, from southern Andes up to southern Mexico. In Brazil, the species has records from Roraima to Rio Grande do Sul, and just recently the species has been found breeding in western Brazil, in the state of Acre. The adult plumage is brownish black, with a distinctive white collar on the neck. The tail is slightly forked and the wings are long. They fly and breed in large flocks, with more than 100 individuals. In southeastern Brazil, their reproductive period begins before the rainy season, in early October, and last until the beginning of January, when most fledglings leave their nests. They nest in wet caves and small crevices near waterfalls and their clutch size is usually 1-2 nestlings, with average time of nestlings in the nest between 41-51 days.
Sick’s Swift (Chaetura meridionalis)
The Sick’s Swift (Chaetura meridionalis) is a small species that occurs in southern South America, being found in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. It is a species of the genus Chaetura, with gray plumage, which has an interesting feature: prolonged feather shafts in the tail. This characteristic, which can also be found in other swift species from Africa and Asia, makes them known by the name of spiny-tailed swifts. They frequently use hollow trees and chimneys as roosting and nesting sites. They are thought to be partially migratory in South America, since they are not observed in non-breeding months.
Neotropical Palm Swift (Tachornis squamata)
The Neotropical Palm Swift (Tachornis squamata) is a small swift species that can be found in most part of South America. It has light gray plumage, a distinctive forked tail, and is frequently seeing foraging close to the ground or in open habitats, like grasslands and savannahs. Their nests are usually built on palm leaves, with feathers and other fibers that are glued with saliva.
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift (Panyptila cayannensis)
The Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift (Panyptila cayannensis) is a small sized swift, distributed from Central America up to southern South America. Unlike most Neotropical swift species, the LSS has a dark black-bluish plumage, forked tail, white throat and white spots in front of the eyes and on the flanks. They also have feathered feet, an unusual feature for Neotropical birds. The nest of the LSS is an amazing long tubular structure, mostly made with plant fibers and feathers, usually attached along a tree trunk or attached by the “sole” to a surface.
About the author
Let’s let Renata Biancalana introduce herself:
“My name is Renata, I’m from São Paulo, Brazil. My interest in swifts came in 2010, when I discovered a nest of a Sooty Swift in a region it was not believed to occur. Since then, I’ve followed an ornithology career specialized in this group of birds. My main areas of interest are breeding biology of Cypseloidinae swifts, molecular ecology and evolution of New World Swifts. I have worked in the Atlantic forest, Cerrado, and in the Amazon, with six different species of swifts. I’m currently developing my PhD in Zoology at the Universidade Federal do Pará and the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, in Belém, Brazil, and I’m a visiting researcher at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA”.
If you want to find out more about Renata’s work, you can find her on Researchgate.