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Got Swifts? Survey Seeks To Identify Chimneys Providing Bird Habitat

Survey update, February, 2021

The Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted a survey in 2020 to find information about chimneys in Wisconsin that are being used by chimney swifts and that are also in need of repair.

There was an overwhelming response to the survey, and we are pleased to learn that so many people are interested in swifts and preserving their habitat. We have evaluated the responses, and have chosen two chimneys that are in greatest need of repair for a pilot project. We plan to work with an agency that can help with repair costs.

After this pilot project is completed, we will reach out to other agencies and groups that may wish to help with repairs on additional chimneys. Look for future updates on our progress.

Thank you for your interest in keeping chimney swifts common in Wisconsin!

Pilot Project Aims To Help Owners Pay For Repairs To Preserve Habitat

MADISON, Wis. – Brick chimneys may be a key component to conserving acrobatic, fast-flying chimney swifts, so Wisconsin residential and commercial property owners are being asked to report if their chimneys are currently being used by swifts through an online survey.

Conducted by the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group, answers to the online survey will help shape a pilot project aimed at helping owners pay for chimney repairs, so they are more likely to keep the structures. Biologists with the Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Conservation Program are part of the working group.

“Sadly, chimney swifts, like many other aerial insectivores including whip-poor-wills, nighthawks and swallows, are declining,” said Rich Staffen, a DNR Natural Heritage Conservation biologist and working group member.

“There are no definitive reasons identified yet for why this is, but the ongoing decline in insect populations is a major concern, and bird experts also know the removal of old chimneys or capping of them, is removing suitable nesting and roosting locations for these birds.”

Chimney swifts nest in eastern North America (east of the Rockies) in the summer and migrate to South America in the fall. Historically, the birds congregated in large standing hollow trees in old-growth forests before they began their migration. However, as old-growth forests disappeared from North America, chimney swifts discovered that brick chimneys served as an easy and abundant replacement.

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 twittering call while flying.

The birds can cling to the rough, vertical surface like the inside of a hollow tree. Hundreds of native chimney swifts may congregate in communal roosts, gathering strength before flying to South America and creating a spectacle that looks like “smoke” pouring into brick chimneys in the fall.

“Chimneys are crucial habitat for swifts that depend upon man-made structures for nesting and roosting before fall migration,” said Sandy Schwab, chair of the working group, adding that a member of the Chimney Swift Working Group may contact respondents in the future to discuss their answers. “We’d like to know if you have a chimney that is being used by swifts for nesting or resting, and if you do, if it’s in need of repairs. This information will help us develop our project to help preserve habitat for chimney swifts.”

The survey will help working group members understand which chimneys are being used for roosting and nesting by these birds and if those chimneys require any repair to keep them as a viable option for the birds into the future.

From the Wisconsin DNR website.

Partnering with Sweeps and Masons to Help Swifts

The Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group is partnering with chimney sweeps and masons that service customers in Wisconsin. Our goal is to identify chimneys currently in use by swifts and to enlighten customers on how to maintain these structures to benefit the species. Chimney sweeps and masons are on the front lines of identifying occupied chimneys and interacting with homeowners who may not be aware of the issues.  

Free educational materials are provided to chimney sweeps and masons who are interested in working with us. 

If you have a masonry or chimney sweep business and have not been contacted by our group, please email helpchimneyswifts@gmail.com or call (608) 658-4139 for more information.

This project has received funding by the Natural Resources Foundation and Bird City – Green Bay.

Click here for more information and a list of participating businesses.

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