Rare chicks rescued in Manitoba catch flight to Ontario before heading south

Four rescued chicks that tumbled from a chimney in Manitoba have been flown to Ontario to join a flock that will hopefully lead them south for the winter.

4 chimney swift chicks were rehabilitated after falling from building at Lower Fort Garry

Four chimney swift chicks were safely released into a flock in Ontario this week after suffering injuries and being rehabilitated in Manitoba. (Wildlife Haven Rehab/Twitter)

Four rescued chicks that tumbled from a chimney in Manitoba have been flown to Ontario to join a flock that will hopefully lead them south for the winter.

The Manitoba government says the chimney swift chicks fell from a heritage building at the Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site in St. Andrews in August.

Chimney swifts are listed as a threatened species in Manitoba, with the population estimated between 300 and 1,000 birds.

The chicks must be part of a larger flock to be released into the wild, but by the time they were ready, the adult birds had already left Lower Fort Garry for their annual trek to South America.

In mid-September, after two weeks of rehabilitation and flight training with other young chimney swifts, the chicks were successfully released into a flock of 500 adult swifts in the chimneys of a brewery in London, Ont.

"The standing joke is that I cry at every release. It is a fascinating, fascinating process," said Debbie Lefebre of Swift Care Ontario, which cared for the birds in London.

"Most birds you can release where there's good food. These have to released where there's a sizable flock of birds."

Parks Canada staff who discovered the chicks reached out to the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Winnipeg, and with some help from provincial workers and others, the best option for joining a flock was determined to be in Ontario.

'High maintenance'

The birds travelled there on a commercial airline.

Lefebre, who is a retired school principal, said chimney swifts are "incredibly high maintenance" because they need feeding every hour from six in the morning until nine at night. Since they're aerial feeders, even adult birds in captivity need to be hand fed.

They also need special cages because they roost vertically, like bats except with their heads up instead of down. And for the four fledgling Manitoba birds that hadn't yet learned to fly, Lefebre said they had to be taught how to fly into a chimney.

That required an artificial chimney — which was actually a cardboard box that was lined so they could perch on it. Lefebre said the birds were lured there with crickets and worms, and once one started feeding, it made a lot of noise that attracted the others.

She said she already had a few other chimney swifts, including one that was the same age as the Manitoba birds. Their peer had already gotten the knack, so the Manitoba birds were able to learn from it.

But the season was getting late. Chimney swifts were converging in London, preparing for their annual migration. Lefebre was investigating the possibility she might have to drive the young birds further south to Windsor, Ont., where they could unite with another flock that was also gathering, in case the London flock took off.

But the weather stayed warm and the birds hung around until the Manitoba birds were finally ready for release.

Lefebre said she waited until some of the flock were visible overhead and the young, captive birds could hear them. She unzipped the mesh cage and the birds flew straight up.

'Welcome wagon' brings babies into flock

"Wild birds immediately fly down and start to circle with them. I call them 'the welcome wagon.' That happens at every single release, that they will hear the babies chittering and they'll come and sort of incorporate them into the flock," Lefebre explained.

"They'll fly around for maybe an hour and then they follow the flock into the chimney, which is a completely new chimney for them, but they follow the flock."