If you've noticed sounds coming from your chimney and you think there are animals nesting, you're probably right. It tends to be a common problem in homes nationwide. Sometimes these critters get in by accident, and other times they come in with a purpose, looking for some cool shade or a warm place to hide. But are animals in the chimney truly a threat to you and your home, and if so, which ones bring on the damage? Here are the usual suspects and what you need to know before taking drastic measures to rid your chimney of any foreign invaders.
The Chimney Swift
The chimney swift is a bird that, under natural circumstances, prefers caves and tree hollows for their home. But given that so many trees across North America have been cut down, they have essentially been forced to find a suitable alternative. This translates to them taking refuge inside of chimneys everywhere. Chimney swifts are currently protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. What this means is that migratory birds cannot be removed or transported from their nesting site.
If you find a family of chimney swifts in your own chimney, there's no need to worry. They are actually quite beneficial as they eat small insects like mosquitoes, termites, flies, and gnats. As a matter of fact, current estimates are that an average family will eat more than 12,000 insects a day.
Most homeowners are concerned that the birds will become trapped and the fireplace will be unusable during the cold winter months. But the truth is, swifts are migratory birds, and they usually begin their journey south around the end of August, being officially gone by the time October is over and done with. Therefore, they really aren't a problem because they inhabit your chimney during the spring and summer months.
Many people don't want to deal with them at all. If that's the case, you should place a cap on your chimney that will fully enclose the opening. This will protect your chimney from being taken over by almost any animal. Anyone who performs professional chimney repairs can make a recommendation for the best type of cap as well as install it for you.
Other people--those who are truly concerned with the wellbeing of these endangered birds--will take measures to ensure that they have a safe home during the summer. If this applies to you, there are three things you should do.
- Make sure your chimney is inspected every year to check for and remove creosote. While this is more important in the prevention of a home fire, it's also necessary for the birds' safety. They build their nests by attaching tiny sticks to the brick wall. If the walls are not clear of soot and debris, their nest could fall, resulting in injuries or death.
- Keep your damper closed when not in use so that animals can't get inside your home. This additionally helps with cutting down on any noises filtering from your chimney into your home.
- Install a special chimney cover that will keep rainwater out but has enough of a gap for the swifts to safely enter and exit. They will need about a foot of space between the cover and the chimney.
Squirrels, Raccoons, and Bats
These critters can easily find their way into your chimney if there isn't a cap in place. Like the birds, they see your chimney as a nice, big, hollow tree they can climb into for safety and warmth, particularly in the winter when you want to use your fireplace the most. You may be annoyed with the frantic scratching sounds they make, but there are additional concerns. Unlike the chimney swift, they do pose the following threats and need to be removed by a professional as soon as possible.
Disease: While it's pretty rare in squirrels, raccoons and bats can carry rabies, so it's vital to get them out of your home for this reason. Animals also leave droppings wherever they are, but bat feces (guano) is very dangerous. It can carry a type of fungus that when inhaled by humans causes a lung disease called histoplasmosis.
Odor: If a critter can get in but they can't get out, they will eventually die. This tends to be more of a problem with metal chimneys where animals are unable to use their claws on the brick and mortar and climb their way out. When this happens, you guessed it, the odor will permeate every inch of your home.
Attractants: Because animals in the chimney urinate and defecate everywhere, this will end up attracting other animals, which just adds fuel to the fire. Snakes in particular will often slink in looking for food in whatever form that takes.
To have an animal safely removed from your chimney, do not try and smoke them out by building a fire. You have to open the damper for ventilation, so they'll just end up landing on the burning wood—which you seriously don't want to deal with—or they'll end up dead in your flue, creating an equally horrid odor. The best thing to do is call a chimney company like Excel Chimney & Fireplace Service and ask for recommendations. Sometimes it's a situation they can take care of or they may refer you to animal control.