Conserving Chimney Swifts in the Wissahickon Valley
Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are one of the most distinctive bird species in North America, easily identified by their stocky silhouettes, chattering voices, and impressive aerial acrobatics. They are an integral part of a healthy environment, and some of nature’s most effective pest controllers; one bird can devour more than 1,000 mosquitoes in a single day. This helps greatly reduce the need for pesticide use. In the last few decades, however, chimney swift populations in the United States have dropped more than 50 percent – Canadian populations by 90 percent. There are two primary reasons assumed for this alarming decline; pesticide use that limits the availability of insects, and the loss of habitat - both on their wintering grounds in South America, as well as right here in Montgomery County. So we have the opportunity, at least, to combat part of that habitat loss.
Unlike many birds, chimney swifts are incapable of perching and spend almost their entire lives on the wing – this means they also have very specific needs. In the past, hollow trees served as nesting and roosting sites, but with industrialization – and an increase in the removal of dead trees – they adapted to using human-made structures instead, thus earning their name (the photo on the right is of an active nest inside a chimney).
As alternative heating systems replace existing chimneys, as new chimneys are constructed in a way that makes them unusable to swifts, and as old remaining chimneys are capped, swifts have fewer and fewer places to go.
But, there is good news! Habitat for these remarkable birds can be created in the form of artificial chimneys or ‘towers,’ which serve as essential nesting and roosting sites. Swifts occupy these towers during the summer breeding season and roost in them during fall migration – sometimes by the thousands. In July of 2017, WVWA finished the construction of our first tower at Crossways Preserve, and three more towers (this time smaller and a couple with informational kiosks) were completed in 2018 at Dodsworth Run Preserve, the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve, and at Fort Washington State Park.
The three towers built in 2018 were funded by Wyncote Audubon, whose WVWA Birdathon team raised money for the project over the last two years. We will be monitoring the installed chimneys in the spring, summer, and fall throughout the coming years, and hope to continue our efforts to help further the conservation of this special species in the Wissahickon Valley.
Below are some photos of our towers at the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve, Fort Washington State Park, Dodsworth Run Preserve, and Crossways Preserve.
More reliant on man-made structures than perhaps any other birds, chimney swift populations are also more easily helped by our actions than many. If you have a chimney, be sure to have it cleaned in March, prior to their breeding season (from May to August). If possible, leave it uncapped until the winter. And of course, help us spread the word about this amazing species and their need for conservation, and support WVWA in our efforts!
Chimney Swift Tracker – Coming Soon
The Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association (WVWA) has been working with a private software developer to create a mobile application for both Android and iOS operating systems, designed to help us generate a centralized registry of chimney swift roosting and nesting sites. The Chimney Swift Tracker, currently in development, will allow Citizen Scientists to document the location, type, and details of their sightings (much like eBird, but more targeted) and help contribute to our goal of monitoring and protecting identified chimney swift habitat. The data collected will be stored in a central database, housed by WVWA. This is the first mobile application for documenting chimney swift populations and the sites they rely upon.
If you’re interested in learning more about chimney swift conservation and how you can help collect valuable data, contact our Stewardship Coordinator, Margaret Rohde, at firstname.lastname@example.org.