Swift Watch: The Best Free Show in Town – Part I

Part I: The Setting

On September 15, 2003, within only 20 minutes, an incredible 4500 chimney swifts poured into the chimney of an old Dublin High School. This spectacle occurs each August through October as chimney swifts gather for their annual migration to winter in the Amazon basin of Peru.  This was not an isolated event, but is a yearly occurrence.

I first learned about this natural phenomenon from current Audubon trustee, Darlene Sillick. Several years ago Darlene had been at a gas station near the old Dublin cemetery along State Route 161 when she heard the clicking, chattering flight calls of chimney swifts. She located the birds circling above the 1919 Building directly opposite the cemetery. That night Darlene had the hour-long show all to herself. Although hundreds of people were passing in front of the building in their cars, most were totally unaware of the fantastic bird show just above their heads. As people left the nearby soccer field, they would walk through the parking lot of the 1919 Building and could be heard exclaiming, “Look at all of those bats up there!” After Darlene invited me to observe this event at a Dublin school, I immediately became “hooked.” Because I knew they were there, night after night about an hour before sunset, I’d find my car heading up Dublin Road to witness the “best free show in town!”

The attraction of the 1919 Building at 144 W. Bridge Street is its chimney. Chimney swifts, Chaetura pelagica, are unable to perch on horizontal surfaces. Instead, they must roost by clinging to vertical surfaces. They manage to do this by using their four forward-facing claws as grappling hooks, and using the stiff exposed spine at the end of each tail feather as support. Originally, swifts roosted in large hollow trees. When those became scarce, they adapted by moving into chimneys and clinging to the rough exposed mortar on the inside walls.

Today it is rare to find a large, uncapped, roughly-textured chimney as is found at the 1919 Building. It is one of the last remaining chimneys of its kind in northwest Columbus. Fortunately, it will remain uncapped. The 1919 Building is a designated historic building and the roosting site is protected. In September of 2002, Darlene registered the site on-line with SwiftWatch.org. This was the first record from Ohio and so received the site code: US-OH-001. At that time SwiftWatch had recorded 130 sites in 22 states.

Is the chimney used these days? Bill Likens, custodian at adjacent Sells Middle School, has been observing the swifts for the past 15 years. He states that the school has heat pumps and, although heat does escape through the chimney, the heat pumps will not kick on until it is nearly freezing and the birds have departed. Even the massive amount of droppings in the bottom of the chimney does not pose a problem. The Franklin County Board of Health said that stack temperatures run around 375 degrees in the heating season and that kills off any bacteria that would have been present.

As a music teacher, part of my job is to train ears to discern various pitches and rhythms. In April when the birds are singing, we begin each music class by listening to a couple of natural birdsongs. You can imagine that my enthusiasm for the chimney swifts spilled over into my music classes. In August 2002, I sent out an e-mail to all Dublin school employees about the unique event occurring at the 1919 Building. I contacted the local papers to come witness the event. Evening audiences began to arrive. My students (sometimes in pajamas), their families (complete with lawn chairs), teachers, and community members began to show up to watch the phenomenon of the swifts gathering and then entering the chimney. The first couple of nights there were 25 people each, but by the following week there were around 100 people each night. A total of 600 people came to see the swifts in the fall of 2002. This past fall I asked the kids in each of my music classes, “Who has ever gone to see the chimney swifts at the 1919 Building?” Out of 600 students at Scottish Corners, 116 kids had been to watch the swifts.

The appreciative audience all sits facing the chimney. It looks rather like an old-fashioned drive-in movie theatre, except that everyone is staring at a chimney instead of a movie screen. As the first bird drops into the chimney one can hear the excitement begin. You hear “ooo” and “ah” as the show continues, and it is not uncommon to hear spontaneous applause after the final bird drops into the chimney for the night. The parking lot behind the 1919 Building has a “tailgate” atmosphere, but each observer leaves in awe with new respect for nature.

Jenny Bowman, author of this series, has been the music teacher at Scottish Corners Elementary in the Dublin City Schools for the past 21 years. She is an avid amateur birder who has traveled to 58 countries.  She has been observing and gathering data on the swifts at this old Dublin high school for the past two years.