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Science and the Environment

Habitat for Chimney Swifts Diminishing in Downtown Springfield

An effort is underway to help a bird that calls Springfield home for only a few months out of the year.  The chimney swift is named for one of the places in which it lives.  And with fewer buildings using chimneys, their numbers have been dropping.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more.

"It's this chimney on the old McDaniel Building, which is now the U-Lofts," said Jim Fossard with the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society. 

Jim Fossard is pointing out a downtown building where chimney swifts used to put on an impressive show each evening at dusk.  Hundreds of the birds would fly into the chimney every year around this time to roost.

"It was just really really spectacular because they would slowly congregate and then they would start flying around in a huge swirl, all flying in the same direction and then, slowly, they would start going into the chimney and then suddenly just hundreds of them would fly into the chimney, and it was just really spectacular to watch," he said.

The old HVAC flu on the southeast corner of the building has since been capped, Fossard says, and the birds are mostly gone.  There are still some that roost in a much smaller chimney just to the west.

Other owners of downtown Springfield buildings have capped their chimneys, too, he says, and that has greatly reduced the number of roosting sites in the area.

Chimney swifts are cigar-shaped birds that eat insects.

"Everything they eat is airborne, and so they're just little aerial vacuum cleaners," he said.

They attach their nests in vertical spaces—one nesting pair per chimney—using glue-like saliva from a gland under their tongues.  Pairs generally mate for life.  In the fall they congregate in chimneys to keep warm. When the weather turns cold, they migrate to the Upper Amazon Basin to places like Peru, Bolivia and Equador.  They return to the eastern United States in the spring.

They roost in vertical spaces, according to Fossard, because they are unable to perch.

"You'll never see a chimney swift setting on a wire.  They can only hang onto vertical surfaces," he said.

He loves to tell people about the benefits of having chimney swifts around.  He hopes that encourages them to do things to help the birds—such as leaving chimneys uncapped and even building chimney swift towers at their homes.

"They're just really beautiful.  They chirp and tweet, and they're just fun to watch.  They eat a tremendous amount of insects.  For example, some estimates are that, when they're nesting, a single pair can eat about 5,000 bugs a day," he said.

Fossard has built two towers at his home, and he says he’s had nesting pairs for the last four years.  He hopes to do his part to bring chimney swift’s numbers back up.

"Their population has been reduced by about 65 percent, unfortunately, and is declining at a rate of about two and half percent per year," he said.

Fossard plans to ask downtown building owners to uncap their chimneys.  He says chimneys are capped at the bottom anyway.  According to Fossard, the only reason to cap them at the top would be to keep water out, but since chimneys are made of stone, water would do very minimal damage to the structures.

Fellow Audubon member, Charley Burwick, says they’re also working with the Springfield-Greene County Park Board to attract chimney swifts to area parks by erecting chimney swift towers.

"We're starting to meet with people at Close Park and the parks about places to place those where they can publicize that, 'this is really a neat place to come,'" he said.

One of the potential sites is Nathanael Greene-Close Memorial Park.  There’s already been an offer of financial support for the project.

If you’d like to learn more about chimney swifts and want to watch them fly in to roost, you can attend an event the Audubon Society has planned on September 12th.  Celebrating Swifts and Sundaes starts at 7 pm at Column IV Apartments on E. Sunshine.  Swifts use the columns at the apartment complex to roost.  Learn more about the event here.

For plans to build a chimney swift tower, click here.