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If You Build It, Will They Come?

December 17, 2009

Chimney Swifts are funny little birds. Their dark color and stumpy tails make them look like flying cigars. With wings like miniature scythes, they can execute sharp, acrobatic turns in flight, making them less graceful than swallows and more amusing to watch.

Because they can’t perch or stand up like other songbirds, they seem to never rest. And they can’t stop “talking” to each other in those cheerful, high-pitched twittering voices. How do they do it? Ever try running and singing at the same time? Impossible after maybe three minutes!

Chimney Swifts got their name because they are so adaptable. Before European colonists came to North America, the birds nested in large hollow trees in old growth forests. As the settlers cut down these forests and built chimneys made of mortar and bricks, the swifts moved their nests and roosting spots downtown. They prospered in urban settings, extending their range into cities and towns across the Great Plains and into southern Canada as far west as Saskatchewan.

Recent changes in chimney technology have sent the North American swift population into serious decline. Some say it’s as much as a 95% decline over the last 40 years; others estimate a 30% reduction during the past 15 years or so.

I hadn’t really noticed that they’d disappeared from my neighborhood until the birders of Winnipeg were asked to check out local chimneys. I went to a nearby hospital and, to my great surprise, the huge, yellow-brick chimney that used to dominate the property was gone. I have no idea how or when it happened, but with it went the funny little birds that used to brighten my days whenever they flitted overhead.

A chimney swift recovery program was quickly organized, and in short order five substitute chimney towers were built. Successful programs in Texas and elsewhere served as models.

Winnipeg’s swifts are pretty choosy, however. So far no swifts have used the fake chimneys. Maybe the swifts just haven’t been smart enough to find them. Or maybe the towers aren’t warm enough. As Laurel McDonald, current head of the recovery program, has discovered, swifts “do not appear to favor nesting sites that drop below 13 degrees Celsius” (approximately 55 Fahrenheit) during nesting season.

Next year the program will attempt to lure the swifts to their new accommodations by playing tape-recorded swift vocalizations from the towers. If that doesn’t work, who knows what might. As old chimneys are demolished or retrofitted, maybe the funny little birds will disappear completely from this northwest corner of their territories.

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