ASWP's Chimney Swift Tower Project and Tower Cam
Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) can be seen and heard over many neighborhoods in western Pennsylvania. Their erratic flight and twittering calls is a sure sign of spring for many. However their history and their future is one of dynamic change and adaptation.
Prior to European settlement in America, Chimney Swifts are believed to have roosted and nested in caves and large hollowed tree trunks. However, after European settlement and extensive exploration for natural resources, many of the historic nesting opportunities vanished. The disturbance to nest sites and drastic land uses changes altered the landscape that Chimney Swifts had depended on. Without accurate population data available for that time period, it is impossible to know how the Chimney Swift population changed during this time. But we can surmise that the population suffered and was likely reduced to areas that saw the fewest disturbances.
As settlement continued and houses were built, Chimney Swifts adapted to using manmade chimneys and smokestacks as roosting and nesting locations. Their population may have stabilized, but likely never reached pre-European settlement numbers.
For hundreds of years, Chimney Swifts have been using our chimneys to raise young and the roost during the night. They are currently relatively common birds in our communities. They require spaces in which they can spiral into, since they are unable to land and perch at nest sites or roosts. In the evening hours, residents of urban communities can watch the swifts as they spiral from the air into nearby chimneys. However, much like the challenges they’ve faced in the past, modern technology is, once again, challenging their population.
Improved efficiency furnaces and associated efficiency measures have begun to present the next challenge to swifts. High efficiency furnaces are being installed in all new construction, and are replacing existing furnaces that required chimney stacks as vents. Today’s furnaces vent from small PVC pipes that are typically located near the foundation of houses. These pipes do not provide roosting or nesting opportunities for swifts. Additionally, as existing homes are equipped with new furnaces, the PVC vents are replacing chimneys, and most chimneys are capped for pest control and added insulation/efficiency values. As more and more people upgrade to the new technologies, Chimney Swifts will continue to lose appropriate nesting locations in our communities.
Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has been working to ensure these birds remain common, before it is too late. Through our Chimney Swift Conservation Program, we are building and installing Chimney Swift Towers throughout the region. The towers mimic chimneys and provide the appropriate space and structure needed to support roosting and nesting swifts. The central tower is approximately 15 feet tall and the inside diameter of the tower is 16”. In many cases, the tower is surrounding by an informational kiosk that describes the structure, its purpose and ASWP’s role in the conservation. Some informational panels also contain a QR code which brings smart phones users to this website. To date, ASWP has installed seven towers in two counties, and we have acquired a significant amount of support to install and/or coordinate the installation of many, many more. We have set a goal of 100 towers installed in southwestern Pennsylvania by 2016.
Chimney Swifts as a Learning Tool
In the fall of 2012, Audubon Society of Western PA, in collaboration with Shaler Area School District, and with funding from the Spark Fund, installed a Chimney Swift Tower at the Shaler Area High School. This tower, however, contains technologies that will be used a learning tool. A low LUX digital video camera has been installed in the tower, enabling a continuous view into the tower structure. The students at Shaler Area High School, as well as people anywhere in the world, can use the streaming video to study behavior and nesting habits. Have a peek into the Shaler Chimney Swift Tower by using the following link: Shaler High School Chimney Swift Cam.