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Swifts Are in a Free Fall—Conservationists Build Nest & Roost Towers to Fight Decline

<p> Photo c/o Wake Audubon </p>

Swift populations have dropped by more than half in the United States since the 1960s, and by a chilling 90 percent in Canada. Historically, Chimney Swifts used large, hollow trees for nesting and roosting, but with the loss of these trees during colonial settlement, the birds switched to human structures. They now depend on household chimneys for nesting and industrial-sized chimneys for roosting. But viable chimneys are also disappearing as homeowners are capping their chimneys, and as urban renewal projects often eliminate large chimneys. Raleigh, alone, has lost more than 20 roost chimneys in the last decade. Fortunately, groups around the country are working to mitigate the problem through innovative approaches.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Wake Audubon and Toyota TogetherGreen by Audubon have teamed up to build a Chimney Swift Tower at the museum's Prairie Ridge Ecostation. The tower is 30 feet tall, and hosted a nesting pair of swifts this summer, but its primary purpose is to serve as a roost tower for thousands of birds during fall migration. The tower was partially funded by a national grant program, Toyota TogetherGreen by Audubon, and the chapter also sold one-hundred-fifty inscribed bricks and secured other donations to complete the construction.

"People only love what they know, what they experience," said John Connors, a Toyota TogetherGreen grantee and one of the leaders on the roost tower project. "We are determined to save the spectacle of swifts coming to roost. It's impossible to witness it without being moved, and we hope people will choose to welcome nesting swifts back to their homes."

The roost tower in Raleigh is just one of many contributions from conservation-conscious individuals across the United States. Paul and Georgean Kyle, of the Chimney Swift Conservation Association, have designed and tested a number of do-it-yourself nesting structures for swifts. Toymakers by trade, the couple has operated a wildlife rehabilitation station at their home, which led to much insight into the biology and behavior of chimney swifts. The Kyles have built 16 nesting and roosting towers on their property alone, with an additional 70 in the Austin, TX area, and nearly 180 across North America. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has found a way to install more. They provide $500 stipends for Eagle Scouts to erect a Kyle-inspired kiosk with a swift nest tower at its center in parks across the region.

Saving nest and roost sites for swifts is not just about the birds. Dennis Evangelista, one of several biologists studying swifts at UNC-Chapel Hill, has worked closely with the Audubon chapter to videotape the flight and flocking behavior of chimney swifts in downtown Raleigh. Using special 3D video and computer software, they are trying to figure out how thousands of these birds swirl around and enter the roost chimney at great speed while dealing with wind, fixed obstacles and flock-mates All of these efforts suggest the tide may be turning for the birds, but a more consistent and united effort is needed to ensure the population stabilizes. We can do this by bringing together like-minded people to discuss the challenges with swift conservation. We did this in August-swift researchers and Audubon activists from across North America came to Raleigh to share information and discuss strategies at the Chimney Swift Conservation Forum & Workshop. Their ideas will be rolled out in the coming year. As you think about how you might get involved in your community, consider:

  • How to organize an educational event to watch swifts roosts
  • How to persuade building owners to keep chimneys intact and swift-friendly, both for nesting and roosting
  • How to provide new nesting and roosting habitat for swifts

Chimney swifts don't have to go up in smoke like their chimney roosts. We can change this. It starts with awareness, and ends with action.