Out of the Shadows: Black Swifts, North America's Most Mysterious Birds

Out of the Shadows: Black Swifts, North America's Most Mysterious Birds

Whether exploring dark, wet caves in Colorado or crossing paths with Montana's grizzlies, a dedicated band of scientists and volunteers is determined to solve the mystery of one of the most elusive birds on earth. 

By Alisa Opar/Photography by Michael Lundgren
Published: September-October 2012

Behavior: Spends most waking hours in continuous flight, like other swifts, catching insects in midair. Travels singly or in small flocks.

Status: Localized and uncommon throughout its range. Total population may not exceed about 20,000 birds. Scattered distribution makes it hard to census.

Threats: Because birds often nest behind waterfalls, destruction of mountain forests or the effects of a drying climate could make some sites unsuitable by reducing stream flows. Deforestation in South America also could degrade their wintering habitat.

Outlook: With its wide range, the species is in no immediate danger, but its long-term survival could be jeopardized by climate change and habitat loss.

This story originally ran in the September-October 2012 issue as "Out of the Shadows."

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Author Profile

Alisa Opar

Alisa Opar is the articles editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @alisaopar.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


this article

I found this article Fascinating! What a mystery bird this is! I know the Flat Tops and have climbed it in the past- very tall and precipitous it is, and beautiful. So is the lovely Bird!
Estella Leopold- Univ. of WAshington, Seattle

Black swifts

One of the most interesting bird articles I have read, fantastic.

Black Swifts

As the holder of M.A.s in Environmental Studies and Marine Biology, I am a staunch defender of our wildlife and its habitat.

I appreciate all that you are doing to help preserve our birds and their refuges.

Please keep up the good fight.

Best regards,

Joan Hunnicutt

Black Swifts

I winter in Puerto Rico and I believe I have seen this species in the western karst area of PR, at the Camuy River Caverns. They are possibly nesting there. If anyone is interested in documenting the presence of this species e-mail me. Dr. C. Skinner.

Chimney swifts?

I'm not aware of the different types of swifts, but I do know that one type inhabits chimneys and I heard them at my workplace just last year. I am concerned for them, because there was talk to do away w/them because of the "rattling" sound they made. Some thought snakes were inhabiting the chimney.

Black Swift Sighting in the state of Washington 18-years ago

On 7/6/1994 my wife and I saw a black swift while hiking northwest of Mt. Adams WA on the way to Council Bluff from the Council Lake campground. I recorded it in the notes of that hike. I am retired from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and live in Portland Oregon

black swifts

WOW! Great article about a wonderfully elusive bird!

Black Swift article

This article explains the saga of the Black Swift beautifully. The article in Smithsonian misses the drama and excitement that this one projects.

What an amazing effort Rich, Kim, Carolyn, & Jason have poured into this on-going, live, detective story.

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