Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Endangered Chimney Swifts Counting On Us

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

Coreen Tizzard & her daughter Amy stand next to the big chimney in Oxford.

When Amy Tizzard pulls her car to the edge of the pavement at the corner of Duke and Waverly Streets in Oxford, I notice her specialty license plate: “Conservation – Species at Risk”. No surprise, then, that she’d volunteer to spend several evenings in Sigrid Wood’s backyard watching the top of a huge chimney for a couple of hours.
Amy is volunteering with Maritimes SwiftWatch, a program launched five years ago to monitor chimney swift populations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The chimney in Sigrid’s backyard was once part of the Scotia Woodworkers mill; according to the date stamped into the brick, this chimney was built in 1919. Until a few years ago, when a previous resident burned garbage in the bottom of it, this chimney was a roost for hundreds of swifts.
On the first night, despite several hours of watching the insect-eating swifts flying in the air above the chimney, not a single one enters it at dusk to roost for the night.
Swifts use chimneys for two separate purposes: for roosting en masse in late May and early June after they migrate north, and for nesting as individual pairs.

According to Maritimes SwiftWatch coordinator, Allison Manthorne, the four-night count conducted by Amy (along with her mother and a few friends) is part of a national effort to
track their population and determine factors for their decline in some areas.
“It also helps us connect with landowners because pretty much all the sites are on private land,” Manthorne says. “Although the birds and chimneys are protected by law while the birds are in them, over the winter, there’s no legal protection for the chimney itself. The count is a way of collecting information and relaying it back to the landowners to show them how important this structure is and what they can do to protect it.”

Amy has three pages of data to complete for each night of the count, filling out information about the chimney structure and the habitat around it, as well as weather conditions such as temperature, cloud cover and wind speed.
Over her four-day watch at the mill chimney, only two swifts roosted there, but because of the number of swifts spied overhead in the hours before sunset, she is not discouraged.
“We had seen up to ten swifts flying around on one night and they are probably roosting elsewhere,” she says. “The birds are somewhere around Oxford so people can keep a look out.”
Chimney swifts are identified by their rapid twittering call and short, stubby tails.

One evening, Amy and her mother were driving through town looking at chimneys and they realized there are a lot of uncapped chimneys no longer being used. Unlined brick chimneys are ideal for swifts.
Allison Manthorne says the easiest way to determine if swifts are nesting in your chimney is to stand outside and look at it.
“If they’re nesting, they’ll go in and out of the chimney about every half hour to forty-five minutes. If they’re roosting, they only come back at night.”

For information on chimney swifts in the Maritimes, check out the Bird Studies Canada link,

BLOG BONUS: How do I know if there are swifts nesting in my chimney?

“You might hear them if you’re in the house," says Allison Manthorne of Maritimes Swiftwatch, based in Sackville, NB. "If there are young, they make a dry, rattling sound; they almost sound like rattlesnakes. You’ll hear the adults twittering to each other." 
As stated in the column, thought, the best way to know is to go outside and look at your chimney to see if any swifts are entering and leaving your chimney at least once an hour. That means they're feeding babies.
According to Manthorne, swift bodies and legs are designed to cling vertically to a surface so if you see a bird perched on the top of a chimney,  it’s not a swift.
“They have these cool tail spines that act like a brace to keep the bird propped up overnight.”

They also are known to nest in the highest, deepest, darkest corners of barns; there is one site like this in Great Village. 
So, Manthrone says, “We’re asking people to keep an eye on their chimneys but also take a look in their barns, especially the older wooden barns.” 
If we're losing chimneys and barns, how about building something especially for swifts? Manthorne says a lot of people are trying to create an artificial structure but so far, none have worked in Canada. 

Knowing if swifts are nesting in your chimney becomes extremely important when a cold, wet June day comes upon us and we decide we want a fire on to take the damp away.
“If we know a pair is nesting in the chimney and we’re able to talk to that landowner, we ask they not light a fire until they know the birds are gone," says Manthorne. "They are protected by law,” she adds. “If someone was to light a fire, that is illegal.”
She admits that law is not well known by people, and honestly, we all know someone who would bristle and say “It’s my house and I’m lighting a fire."
Manthorne  is just hopeful that doesn't happen. “By and large, the nesting season is late enough that we don’t see that conflict.”

The massive unused chimney in Oxford is an ideal roosting spot for swifts.

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