The race for a roost is to the swifts

Ever since Charlie rebuilt the chimney on the 1880s home we've restored in New Harmony, Ind., I've paid attention to chimneys of all kinds. In fact, I've noticed a lot of things about historic homes since the reconstruction project took off five years ago - transits, gingerbread work, doorknobs, and (because it's a brick house) tuck-pointing and creative masonry.

Especially chimneys.

Our own stack was listing and crumbling. By the time he got to it, Charlie was more than ready to leave the grunt work of jacking up floors, truing walls, rebuilding porches, wiring, and plumbing. Up on the rooftop his artistic impulses took wing. He dismantled the simple stack and replaced it with a prettily shaped brickwork geometry, the layers of which jut out incrementally toward a widened top. It's a sound and attractive piece of work, even if it isn't the grandest chimney in this mansion-studded historic town. It complements our one-story weekend dwelling perfectly.

These days, dusk seems to come too early and all of a sudden. One evening just before dark, Charlie and I walked our dogs along the quiet, tree-lined streets of New Harmony as swifts - hundreds of them - swooped and darted overhead. During their migration, the birds never rest until they roost for the night, typically congregating in a single chimney, which they choose according to some mysterious group dynamic.

The swifts overhead seemed to be on the brink of that decision now, circling toward the large and impressive stack of a three-story bed-and-breakfast - a five-star roost. Two blocks later we were home, and unaccountably, so were the birds. We watched, transfixed, as a funnel cloud dense with flexing tails and pivoting wings took form directly above our own chimney. Gradually, several birds at a time, they disappeared into its dark depth where they would cling to the sides with sharp claws and stiff, bristled tails until dawn.

We stood there for 20 minutes or more, necks craned at the endlessly inflowing tide. Our dogs flopped on the grass, resigned to a delay just short of reaching those coveted rugs and easy chairs. A jogger paused and oohed with us; a group of boys slowed their bikes to see the feathered force of nature.

We'll never know what brought the birds to our chimney. There are plenty of others, bigger and roomier. As shamelessly as I anthropomorphize my own animals, I don't think the swifts sensed how welcome they'd be with us. More likely some intricate combination of failing light, firm mortar, and weariness drew them in.

We'd been casually invited out that night by close friends we thoroughly enjoy. But in the end, it seemed boorish to walk away from 200 or 300 densely packed guests. They were undemanding and perfectly quiet, and come dawn we never even heard them leave.

Our neighbors here have cheered and encouraged us as we've labored on the little brick house. But our greatest compliment came from the late summer sky when the swifts followed us home and dropped in for the night - as if ours was the chimney of their dreams.

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