Picture a cigar with wings and you have a rough idea of what a Chimney Swift looks like. These small, grayish birds may look rather nondescript at first glance, but it only takes moments to realize you are watching one of the masters of flight as they whirl and chatter above your head. In fact, Chimney Swifts remain
almost constantly airborne through their lives, foraging in the sky for aerial insects such as mosquitoes and flies. Eating a third of their weight a day, a single swift family is estimated to consume 12,000 flying insects a day. Over the course of a year that is over 4 million insects, many of which are harmful to people and crops. In other words, you can think of them as one of Mother Nature’s best exterminators.
Each year these long distance migrants return to Ohio from their wintering grounds in the Amazon Basin to spend the breeding season before heading south again in the fall. Chimney Swifts cannot perch. They must have rough vertical surfaces to cling to when at rest and during nesting. Before European settlers arrived, Chimney Swifts built their nests in large, hollow, old growth trees. However, they quickly adapted to using manmade structures such as brick chimneys. During the breeding season, single pairs will select a suitable nest site and construct nests made of twigs that are attached to the inside of the tree or chimney using the bird’s glue like saliva. During migration larger structures will act as roost sites, allowing hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of birds to roost together for warmth.
Unfortunately Chimney Swift populations are declining. From 1966 to 2015 their numbers declined each year by 2.5%. Cumulatively this is a loss of 72%. It is thought that this decline is due to habitat and nesting site losses. Large trees are not as common and old chimneys are capped or torn down. Luckily there are things we can do!
Look to the right as you drive into Infirmary Mound Park after passing the dog park and you will notice the new 12 foot white column rising from the fields. The structure is a Chimney Swift tower, constructed by Ben Smith of Troop 4002 to complete his Eagle Scout project. Ben approached the Licking Park District last summer to propose the idea. When asked why this was the project, he replied “I chose this project because my dad is really into birding, and is a large influence on the person I am today. He brought up the issue and the idea and I thought this was something I could get behind and actually do.”
According to Ben, “an Eagle Scout Project has to be a project that benefits your community, requires planning and discipline, and demonstrates leadership among your peers as well as the ability to make decisions. You have to finish the project by your 18th birthday.” It is here that it should be mentioned that Ben is 16 and well ahead of that deadline! Over the last few months Ben researched tower plans, identified funding sources, sourced materials, and rallied his fellow troop members. He organized construction and installation days. And he completed his goal. The tower is now finished and all that is left to do is wait for the birds to find it.
A tower this size will support a breeding pair during the summer and potentially many more during fall migration when Chimney Swifts roost in larger numbers. The larger the tower or chimney, the larger the roost. A large roost is truly a spectacle. 15 minutes before full dark, the swifts will gather in a large, counterclockwise, swirling avian hurricane. At some signal known only to the birds, one by one they will rapidly descend into the tower until suddenly the sky is quiet. In the future, park staff, volunteers, and visitors will be able to monitor the tower and help us determine how many birds have benefited.
When asked what his biggest takeaway was from the project, Ben had this to say.
“My biggest takeaway is that if you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything. There were times where I doubted myself, but I kept at it and stuck to the work that needed to get done and eventually the work paid off. The thing I enjoyed most about the process was seeing the people I care about show interest in something that I’m passionate about, and being able to enjoy the finished project knowing other people are invested in it too and supported me the whole way.”
We want to thank Ben for his dedication and his choice of projects. This tower will provide not only valuable habitat for Chimney Swifts, but will also provide educational opportunities for years to come.
By the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project
If you have a masonry or clay flue-tile chimney, keep the top open and the damper closed from March through October to provide a nest site for these insect-eaters. Metal chimneys should be permanently capped to prevent birds and other wildlife from being trapped. Have your chimney cleaned in early March before the Chimney Swifts return from their winter home in South America. Work with local conservation groups to construct Chimney Swift Towers and educate your friends and neighbors about Chimney Swifts.