The Black Swift (Cypseloides niger) is one of the more poorly known North American birds. Seen by most people in flight high overhead, its comings and goings are only poorly documented.
Swifts are aerial insectivores. Their very long wings, with extremely high aspect ratio (length/width), allow them to glide effortlessly or move forward at high speed by rapid wingbeats. They are large enough that their wingbeats are more obvious than those in smaller swifts such as Vaux’s. Not only can they fly for long periods while foraging, but they can fly long distances as well, This serves them not only for long-distance migration (they winter in northern South America) but also for daily foraging trips.
The diet of these birds is of course made up of flying insects. The prey is usually about a centimeter in length or less and may be flying ants, wasps, flies, beetles, leafhoppers or anything else that they can find in the air. Foraging is often very high, beyond the limits of human vision, but during cloudy and cool weather, the birds come much lower, often feeding over water bodies, where insects are usually present even in bad weather.
Because they are such superb fliers, the swifts can wander 80 km or more from their montane nesting areas in a single flight to look for food. They stay away for many hours, accumulating insect prey in a sticky mass in the throat. When they return to the nest, they feed the young by regurgitating this mass a bit at a time.
Nesting is always on cliffs, either on rugged coasts or in mountainous areas, usually behind a waterfall. The nests are built of moss (or moss and seaweeds for coastal nests). Because foraging is an uncertain business if you’re a swift, creating quite a challenge when feeding young, this species lays only one egg. Food delivery must be spotty, even with two parents providing it, as the young takes about seven weeks to leave the nest. Compare that with a nestful of five baby robins that fledge in two weeks!
While censusing birds at Port Susan Bay, Snohomish County, Washington ornithologist Steve Mlodinow observed numbers of these swifts at close enough range to get magnificent photos, perhaps the best ever taken in flight. These photos generated a lengthy discussion about why some birds had white tips to the feathers of their underparts and others didn’t. The consensus, aided by examination of specimens in the Slater Museum, is that the white-scalloped birds are females. In addition, the spotted birds had shorter tails. Sexual dimorphism is quite unusual in swifts, and its significance in Black Swifts is unknown.
Much is to be learned about this species, perhaps not easily. For example, no one has seen Black Swifts copulate; there is a challenge for an adventuresome field observer!