Out of the Shadows: Black Swifts, North America's Most Mysterious Birds
Looks: Torpedo-shaped, about 7 inches long, with relatively short tail and long, narrow, curved wings. Sooty black with a frosting of white on the forehead.
Range: Breeds at widely scattered points from British Columbia south to Costa Rica; also in the West Indies. Recently found wintering in western Brazil.
Habitat: Forages in the air over various habitats, from forest to open country. Nests on damp rocky cliffs, usually behind waterfalls or in sea caves.
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."