Category Archives: Archived News

Now is time to help count chimney swifts

Reporting on evening phenomenon may help protect a declining species

Chimney Swifts descending Joni Denker

MADISON, WI – That “smoke” pouring into brick chimneys in coming weeks isn’t an optical illusion but likely hundreds of native chimney swifts roosting for the night and gathering strength and numbers before they migrate south, all the way to the Amazon.

Wisconsin bird experts are asking homeowners, bird watchers and others to help count the birds and report where they see them to provide vital information on a declining, unique species.

“Chimney swifts are an important species in Wisconsin because they help keep flying insect populations in check,” says Kim Grveles, Department of Natural Resources avian ecologist and a member of the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group. “We need citizens’ help in counting the birds near them, and in reporting that information to us so we can better understand and take steps to hopefully reverse the decline of chimney swifts.”

“You don’t have to be an experienced bird watcher or trained researcher to enjoy the evening aerobatic displays of the swift,” says Nancy Nabak, co-chair of Green Bay’s Swift Night Out program and member of the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group. “The sight of dozens or hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of chimney swifts going to roost for the night in chimneys can be an exhilarating spectacle.”

The Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group formed in 2012 to help identify and protect important swift roost sites, encourage or conduct field research on swifts and their ecology, and educate the public about the species in order to encourage action to halt the species’ decline. “Modern construction often doesn’t include chimneys, and chimneys are critical as nest sites and for communal roosting for non-nesting swifts. We want to encourage the public to keep suitable chimneys uncapped to provide habitat for these amazing birds,” says Sandy Schwab, chair of the working group.

In the last few years more than 60 volunteers have helped identify more than 72 chimney swift roosting sites across several urban areas. One of the largest known swift roosts is the chimney at Cherokee Middle School in Madison, where more than 2,800 swifts were tallied in 2012. Aldo Leopold School in Green Bay, St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, and Geneva Lake Museum in Lake Geneva are sites of other large roosts.

Chimney swifts nest in eastern North America in the summer and migrate to South America in the fall. Before European settlement, the birds nested in old-growth forests. As such forests disappeared, the birds discovered brick chimneys served as an easy and abundant replacement, Schwab says. Brick chimneys work well for the birds because the chimneys provide enclosed areas with a rough, vertical surface the birds can cling to, much like a hollow tree. Unlike most birds, chimney swifts do not perch on branches or other horizontal surfaces but must use the sharp nails on their tiny feet to cling to vertical surfaces.

For years their populations have been in decline, and in 2009 Canada listed them as a threatened species. Why are they declining? No one knows for sure, but scientists want to conduct more research on the insects chimney swifts eat to better understand if changes in flying insect populations, possibly driven by widespread pesticide use, might be adversely affecting chimney swifts and other “aerial insectivores” such as whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and swallows.

Tips on how and where to look for chimney swifts

Chimney swifts have slender bodies, very long, narrow, curved wings and short, tapered tails. They fly rapidly, with nearly constant wing beats, often twisting from side to side and banking erratically. They often give a distinctive, high-pitched chattering call while they are in flight, said Bill Mueller of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, Belgium, WI, and an advisor to the working group.

“A lot of folks see and hear them in the evening and don’t realize they’re birds,” he said. “They think they’re bats.”

Because chimney swifts congregate in communal roosts before migrating in late summer/fall, it’s relatively easy to count them. Here’s how to count:

  1. Look for tall brick chimneys that are uncapped. Watch to see where swifts are feeding and congregating. Pick one or more nights from early August in northern Wisconsin through mid- to late September in southern Wisconsin. Observe the roost starting about 30 minutes before sunset until 10 minutes after the last swift enters the chimney. Count (or estimate) the number of swifts as they enter the chimney. It’s useful to count in groups of five or 10 birds at a time when many birds pour into the chimney in a short period of time.
  2. Send in data (click here to download form) one of two quick and easy ways.
    • Enter the data on eBird. Go to the eBird Quick Start Guide. When prompted for location, map your roost site to an exact address or point. Include, in the “Chimney Swift” comments section, general weather conditions, time when the first and last swifts entered the roost and type of building — residence, school, church, business, etc.
    • Or send the same information as above along with your name, address, email address, date and exact time of your survey at the roost to Sandy Schwab, 105 S. Marietta St., Verona, WI 53593 or sschwab49@gmail.com

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Sandy Schwab, Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group, 608-658-4139

Updated July, 2016

Tips on how and where to look for chimney swifts

chimney-swift_17137_435x580Chimney swifts have slender bodies, very long, narrow, curved wings and short, tapered tails. They fly rapidly, with nearly constant wing beats, often twisting from side to side and banking erratically. They often give a distinctive, high-pitched chattering call while they are in flight, said Bill Mueller of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, Belgium, WI, and an advisor to the working group.

“A lot of folks see and hear them in the evening and don’t realize they’re birds,” he said. “They think they’re bats.”

Because chimney swifts congregate in communal roosts before migrating in late summer/fall, it’s relatively easy to count them. Here’s how to count:

  1. Look for tall brick chimneys that are uncapped. Watch to see where swifts are feeding and congregating. Pick one or more nights from early August in northern Wisconsin through mid- to late September in southern Wisconsin. Observe the roost starting about 30 minutes before sunset until 10 minutes after the last swift enters the chimney. Count (or estimate) the number of swifts as they enter the chimney. It’s useful to count in groups of five or 10 birds at a time when many birds pour into the chimney in a short period of time.
  2. Submit your data using one of two quick and easy ways.
    • Enter the data on eBird.org. Go to the ebird-quick-start-guide for instructions. When eBird.org prompts for the location, map your roost site to an exact address or chimney. In the species comments section include general weather conditions, time when the first and last swifts entered the roost and type of building — residence, school, church, business, etc.
    • Or, send the same information as above along with your name, address, email address, date and exact time of your survey at the roost to Sandy Schwab, 105 S. Marietta St., Verona, WI  53593 or sschwab49@gmail.com

VIDEO: 860 swifts at Janesville’s “Swift Night Out”

On the evening of September 7th 2014 Janesville (an official Wisconsin “Bird City“) had a “Swift Night Out” event.  860 migrating swifts were counted descending the chimney to spend the night at the Washington Elementary school before continuing their journey to South America.  Thanks to Joni Denker for sharing this impressive video on YouTube and posting on eBird.org.  Janesville’s Bird City Facebook page is here.

Declining swifts, swallows & nightjars since 1970

Line graph depicting the percent change in population size of two subgroups of aerial insectivores since 1970
from http://www.stateofcanadasbirds.org/

 

Bill Mueller (Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory) pointed to the research below.   What are the suspects in the mystery of the declining migrant insectivores?  Are new insecticides like neonicotinoids wiping out insect populations?   Increasing weather events like hurricanes?  Less available chimneys for nesting or roosting? Or has climate change caused a mismatch in the timing of the birds’ needs and when certain insects emerge?”  The mystery continues…

Loss of nesting sites is not a primary factor limiting northern Chimney Swift populations
Population Ecology, July 2014, Volume 56, Issue 3, pp 507-512
Trina M. Fitzgerald, Elisabeth van Stam, Joseph J. Nocera, Debra S. Badzinski

Abstract: Aerially-foraging insectivorous bird populations have been declining for several decades in North America and habitat loss is hypothesized as a leading cause for the declines. Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are a model species to test this hypothesis because nest site use and availability is easily assessed. To determine if nest site availability is a limiting factor for Chimney Swifts, we established a volunteer-based survey to inventory and describe chimneys (n = 928) that were used or unused by swifts. A logistic regression model showed that swifts preferred chimneys with a greater length exposed above the roofline and greater inside area, which were not associated with residential buildings. The average chimney used by swifts extended 2.86 m above the roofline with an internal area of 10,079 cm2. The regression model represents the range of nest-site conditions that swifts will tolerate; this was used to build a linear discriminant function (ldf) that had an I-index of 82 % (measure of prediction success). We applied the ldf coefficients to predict chimney occupancy in three southern Ontario communities. Of 366 open chimneys, the ldf classified 139 as suitable but only 24.4 % were occupied by swifts. Given that >75 % of suitable sites were unoccupied, swifts are likely not experiencing competition from habitat saturation. Our results suggest that Chimney Swift populations, and likely other aerially-foraging insectivorous birds, are limited primarily by other processes not measured in this study, such as changes in prey.

Stan Temple: Teen adventures with swifts

temple2A great story, from one of our most accomplished Wisconsin ornithologists and conservationists:

My introduction to the world of the Chimney Swift began in the chimney of my grandparents’ house in Cleveland, Ohio, back in 1959. My grandfather worked for the local utility company and was a stickler about how the home’s heating system performed. He forbade my grandmother from using the living-room fireplace because he had calculated how much heat would be “sucked up the chimney.” Unused for years, the chimney, which ran through a bedroom wall, eventually hosted a nesting pair of swifts that attracted my attention with their very audible “twittering.” My second-floor room had a porch that provided easy access to the roof and the chimney. My teenage passion for birds was far greater than my respect for my grandmother’s admonition to “stay off the roof or you’ll fall and break your neck.” I spent a lot of time peering down into the darkness and monitoring progress at the swifts’ nest, which eventually produced two fledglings.

 

My interest in swifts having been piqued, I began checking out other chimneys in the neighborhood, and discovered several that had birds coming and going from them. But I was especially fascinated with the several “chimneys” on an old church rectory (subsequently found to be ventilation shafts) that were populated by hundreds of swifts that created a veritable avian tornado each night. I assumed that it must be a huge colony of nesting swifts.

At the time I was working part-time at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where I regularly attended meetings of the local Kirtland Bird Club, named after Jared Potter Kirtland, the local naturalist who in 1851 discovered the Kirtland’s Warbler near the future site of my grandparent’s home. I mentioned my observations of swifts at a meeting when Professor Ralph W. Dexter from Kent State University happened to be in attendance. I had encountered him in passing when he occasionally visited the museum’s mollusk collection, but at the time I wasn’t aware that he was THE reigning expert on Chimney Swifts. He gently corrected my erroneous interpretation that the swifts at the church comprised a nesting colony and explained that they were simply roosting and that there were probably no more than a few pairs nesting in the chimneys. Nonetheless, impressed by my interest in swifts, he invited me to visit him and observe how he studied KentStateSealswifts at Kent State. I took advantage of his generosity and was able to visit him the next summer, helping him with his legendary, long-term banding studies of the swifts nesting and roosting in the ventilating shafts of older buildings on campus. At that time his notoriety for studying the campus swifts lead Kent State to incorporate a silhouette of a Chimney Swift into its official seal.

Encouraged by my brief field experience with Dr. Dexter, I was determined to have a closer look at the large concentration of swifts in the chimneys of the neighborhood church. I had convinced myself I was going to prove Dr. Dexter wrong and that my birds really were a large nesting colony. With the help of a sympathetic church janitor, I gained access to the roof and was finally able to examine the chimneys and found . . . just what Dr. Dexter had predicted: no more than a single active nest in any shaft! Most of the non-breeding, roosting birds were actually in shafts not used by nesting pairs. Chastened, I never brought up the subject of swifts again at bird club meetings, but Dr. Dexter did become a supporter of my career in ornithology and wrote a letter on my behalf when I applied for admission to Cornell University where I eventually earned my Ph.D. at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Stanley A. Temple
Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation, University of Wisconsin
Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation

Althea Sherman’s swift tower webcam

AltheaTower AltheaNest AltheaBinocsIn Iowa, the restored 1915 wooden Althea Sherman swift tower has a late-season swift nest and a webcam!

There were still 5 eggs on August 3, and by August 6 there were 3 or possibly 4 hatchlings. As of 8-18-14, the 5 babies are probably between 13-15 days old, just in time for eyes to open and for first steps onto wall to begin. Both parents feed and brood the nestlings.

Linda & Robert Scarth have been blogging about the nest and have wonderful photos of the nestlings in the tower.

Wisc Humane Society rehabs “Matt” the swift

Rehabbed swift at Wisc Humane Society
© Wisconsin Humane Society.

The Wisconsin Humane Society’s wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee cares for over 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals every year.  This lucky swift made a full recovery:

Matt had suffered a mild concussion from a collision and was stunned. Because Swifts eat on the wing and don’t know how to feed on the ground, Wildlife staff diligently hand fed mealworms to Matt every half an hour to make sure he had enough to eat. After several days of hand-feeding and medical treatment, Matt finally perked up and was ready to be released!

Read more about Matt at The Wisconsin Humane Society website.

Hartland kids & businesses team up to build swift roosting tower


Ramsey Schlissel tells us that ground has broken on the Hartland chimney tower project.  A huge chimney at the historic White Elm Nursery, a roosting site for about 1000 swifts, was demolished this year.   The Hartland community raised funds to build a replacement “chimney”.  Hopes are high that migrating swifts will relocate this fall to the nearby Ice Age Trail – John Muir Lookout, south of town along the Bark River.

For more information or to donate to the project:  http://www.savetheswifts.com