Let’s Build Towers for Chimney Swifts

Delaware's Ohio National Guard Armory, built in 1920, stands with it steel rafters exposed as it awaits the next stage of demolition. An air shaft at the north end, and a brick chimney the opposite end, had sheltered roosting swifts for many years.

Delaware's Ohio National Guard Armory, built in 1920, stands with it steel rafters exposed as it awaits the next stage of demolition. An air shaft at the north end, and a brick chimney the opposite end, had sheltered roosting swifts for many years.

Most times that I visited downtown Delaware this past summer, I heard the familiar chatter of chimney swifts as they went about their lives zigzagging above and between the downtown’s historic buildings. Each time I glanced up to see my feathered friends, I was reminded of the recent demise of the Ohio National Guard Armory whose two chimneys sheltered roosting swifts during their spring and fall migrations. The armory was dismantled on 21 April 2011 after being sold by the State of Ohio to the funeral home next door. The doomed building became history to make way for the funeral home’s expanded parking lot. Years before the armory was sold, it was understood that it would probably be torn down by whoever purchased it.

Large chimneys are in high demand during swift migration. Swifts in the hundreds or thousands will seek overnight shelter in favored chimneys and airshafts as they migrate back and forth between annual nesting sites in North America and their wintering grounds in Peru and Chile.

Almost gone, the armory on 21 April 2011.I had counted roosting chimney swifts at the armory each fall from 2003 through 2010. As many as 1650 swifts dropped into its chimney on 4 October 2003. I had also counted swifts at other “public” chimneys in Delaware, including an elementary school, two churches, Grady Memorial Hospital, several government buildings downtown, and two chimneys on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus. I don’t count swifts at private homes for an obvious reason: staring at someone’s home at dusk can be one way to better know the local police! To avoid misunderstandings, I only watch large chimneys attached to public buildings.

Since the time that I first started counting my community’s nightly guests, two chimneys have become extinct. A local business removed its welcome mat by capping its chimney while a church removed its chimney entirely after capping it years before. Unfortunately, large chimneys erected during the coal-burning era are not needed after modern furnaces are installed.

Fortunately, there is renewed hope since swift conservation is gaining momentum across North America. Concerned citizens are building swift towers near their homes, in parks, and on other public lands so the “flying cigars” can breed, but the species has its own limiting factor; only one pair will breed per tower. Even though only one nest occupies a chimney during the breeding season, scores of non-breeders can roost in the same chimney and some assist with feeding the nestlings there. However, most modern backyard towers can shelter no more than several hundred roosting swifts during migration. In some communities, large brick chimneys continue to shelter hundreds or thousands of migrants after being saved for posterity by conservationists.

John James Audubon recorded some of the first swift observations in 1808 as he watched swifts drop into a hollow sycamore tree standing outside Louisville, Kentucky. After paying a woodchopper to whittle a large hole in the base of the eight-feet-wide tree, Audubon and a hunting companion crawled inside the huge vertical cavern after dark to retrieve 115 unlucky swifts. After exiting the massive roost, Audubon laid the dead swifts side by side on the ground, measured them, and found that 32 birds covered every square foot of inside surface. From this standard, Audubon used his French education to calculate that the hollowed sycamore sheltered 9,000 swifts that night, minus 115.

A swift tower stands to offer one pair of Chimney Swifts a nest site at the Linworth Alternative Program High School, Worthington City Schools. Designed for nesting swifts, the tower can only accommodate several hundred roosting birds during migration.Althea Sherman of National, Iowa designed the first swift tower in 1915. Sherman’s tower looks like a lighthouse from the outside because it was built so she could observe and study nesting swifts while sheltered from the weather. Peepholes in the tower’s walls made observations possible from a staircase that spiraled around it. Sherman’s tower has been dismantled and saved for future reconstruction as an historical site. Althea Sherman published over fifty scientific papers describing the natural histories of birds and most are in her book, Birds of an Iowa Dooryard, published by University of Iowa Press in 1952 and 1996.

Paul and Georgean Kyle of Austin, Texas are leaders of the modern swift movement through their Driftwood Wildlife Association. The Kyles co-authored two books published by Texas A&M in 2005: Chimney Swifts: America’s Mysterious Birds; and, Chimney Swift Towers: Hew Habitat for America’s Mysterious Birds, A Construction Guide. The July-August 2011 edition of Audubon magazine recently featured the Kyle’s story on pages 44-49.

I became interested in swifts in 2003 due to the Kyle’s promotion of annual “Swift Nights Out” during the first weekends of August and September when swift watchers are encouraged to find roosts, count swifts, and email their findings for posting on www.chimneyswifts.org . I started driving around neighborhoods at dusk with my windows rolled down, listening for chippering swifts, then I followed their circular flight paths to their roosts. This is how I became aware of roosts in Delaware and the Methodist Church chimney in Galena, the small village that is sandwiched between the Big and Little Walnut Creeks that feed Hoover Reservoir.

Swift Tower GuideBeing a fan of swifts, an article in the 16 October 2008 edition of the Sunbury News immediately caught my attention. The story reported by Gary Henery, “George designs “Spirit Tower” for DSL class project at BWHS,” showed high school junior Anthony George standing “with his “Spirit Tower” he conceived in Mrs. Angie Stooksbury’s Developing Student Leaders class at Big Walnut High School (BWHS).” The structure is three cinder blocks square (4′ x 4′) that stands eight feet. The tower was not made for swifts, so it has a peaked roof and solid walls. At many schools and universities, students paint “spirit rocks” with messages to represent their school, class or organization. At BWHS, each of the tower’s four walls is assigned to a class grade for its representatives to periodically decorate with a message.

I retired as a middle school life science teacher from Big Walnut and before the 2010-2011 school year ended, I visited BWHS to interview students and teachers and found that the concept of a spirit tower was well received by students as my photo shows. Tower messages were positive, clear and artful. Everyone I talked with endorsed the tower’s purpose and presence.

So, why not make spirit towers a part of other campuses, but make them taller, wider, and with openings at the top for swifts, and build them with service doors so guano can be easily removed. Also, design towers to drain well so ammonia does not form from nitrogen-rich guano after saturating rainstorms. (After eight years of watching swifts, I believe that ammonia forms in clogged chimneys to repel roosting flocks within days after heavy rains.) The Kyles have written the book on how to make safe and functional swift towers. I can foresee large brick towers at school sites fulfilling many objectives. While sheltering hundreds of migrating birds, the lower, spirit tower portion of a pillar could promote positive student expression while the higher swift tower portion provides viewing opportunities for the public, including organized field trips for school children that encompasses topics in science, geography, social studies, etc.

Anthony George shown with the "Spirit Tower" he conceived in Mrs. Angie Stooksbury's Developing Student Leaders class at Big Walnut HS.In their Annotated List of the Birds of Ohio, 1968, Milton and Mary Troutman lists swift spring migration as 10 April – 25 May and fall migration occurs between 25 July and 8 October. I have never recorded observations during spring migration, but I usually start monitoring fall migration by early August. The latest date for when I counted swifts is 18 October 2006 when 36 dropped into the armory’s chimney.

Generally, swifts start entering chimneys within fifteen minutes before sunset, and the last of a flock disappears inside their roost within one-half hour after sunset. Swifts will enter chimneys earlier on cloudy, overcast days, and generally, they don’t emerge from their roosts until insects become airborne the next day. For personal use, sunset and sunrise timetables can be downloaded from the Internet, and daily times are listed on weather pages of most newspapers. As for school field trips, the range of sundown times from September 1 through October 1, runs from 8:04 until 7:15, early enough for the youngest school children to return home from an inspiring field trip for a good night’s sleep.

Large, communal swift towers built on public land should be located where large groups of watchers can be sheltered from rainy weather. Swifts are built to perch in vertical positions, so they cannot bathe in pools like other birds. For this reason, swifts love to fly in the rain. Many times I have sat in my car with its wiper blades working as swifts funneled into their roost during downpours accompanied with lightning flashes and loud thunder claps.

BWHS's Spirit Tower shows a positive message from the Class of 2011.One clear night, a loud blast was not thunder. I was sitting in my director’s chair and visiting with a pair of residents from the Willow Brook Christian Village at Delaware Run. While watching the swifts above the armory’s chimney, I became agitated by a vehicle parked in the Tim Horton’s lot behind us with its engine running. I had just commented that if I got one breath of exhaust, I was going to confront its owner and ask him to shut his engine off. Just then, the idling truck with dark windows backed up and turned south on Washington Street. Within seconds, an ear-splitting concussion grenade blew up, and its blast was so loud I felt the compressed air push on my face. Shouts of, “Get down, get down, you’re under arrest!” rang out from several houses down the street. At a glance, I could see multiple handguns pointed at a hapless target lying prone on the sidewalk. Everything happened so fast that I did not have time to seek cover behind the thick cement light post beside me. The swifts had abruptly dispersed from their circulating cloud, but within minutes they had returned to form their feathered whirlpool above the chimney. Their watchers, now pumped up with adrenaline in their veins, realized that a police raid had just taken place and the obnoxious vehicle idling behind us had been part of the arresting force. Ah, just another wild night counting birds! But seriously, this incident also brings into focus that public swift towers must be located where parking, traffic, and undesirable human behaviors are not problems.

Swifts will temporarily disperse when reacting to intense noises from loud motorcycles, accelerating semi-trucks, and piercing sirens and blasting horns from emergency vehicles. Other than that, raccoons and other scampering animals near a roost entrance may cause swifts to roost elsewhere. Nonetheless, once swifts decide to roost in a chimney, they become obsessed. On the night of 1 September 2005, the armory was a very busy place as the National Guard prepared to leave Delaware to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The swifts were not deterred by idling diesel trucks and buses, or loud, banging noises of equipment being loaded, or shouting voices; and the swifts ignored a TV station’s tall aerial as it telescoped a blinking orange light three stories into the sky. The soldiers and the birds knew what they were doing and I felt privileged to have witnessed the blend of meaningful activities.

Chimney Swift populations have been declining since 1969. So, can we answer the call and erect large, brick communal swift towers that can shelter thousands of roosting swifts, not only for the birds, but for people that seek meaningful moments after their evening meals? Think of shelter houses, nature centers, schools, college campuses, retirement villages, and any other public locations with roof overhangs, patios, or lobbies with glass walls that can host swift watchers. Where and when can we meet to exchange ideas? The bricks, concrete, hardware cloth, and rebar needed for a twelve-feet-tall masonry tower described on page 69 of Chimney Swift Towers costs less than $650.00. Think of the spirit tower at Big Walnut High School, and expand on that idea and its effort. Yes, the money will come, but first, we must meet. More later. Swift on.