— Plan to save chimney swifts lands in Shepherdstown.
It’s April, and as spring pushes out the last remnants of winter, West Virginia comes alive—almost as if forest and fields let out a collective sigh of relief, and inhale a deep breath of satisfaction. The morels emerge, the ramps get picked, and the dogwoods bloom. We soak in all the beauty and take our own deep breaths. But beyond all the obvious glory on the ground, an epic natural phenomenon is quietly assembling in the skies above: the chimney swifts are returning to Shepherdstown.
It’s easy to overlook the swifts. They arrive unceremoniously after flying thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in the Amazon Basin. They twitter quietly above as they swoop after flying insects with long pointed wings and small torpedo-like bodies. Their plain brownish feathers don’t grab the eye, and their constant chatter becomes background to the more eloquent songs of other migratory birds also arriving each spring.
But chimney swifts have something special that other songbirds don’t: they roost in large numbers—a thousand or more at a time if they can find the right place. And Shepherdstown has the right place; or at least it has for a long time. In fact, Shepherdstown currently hosts the largest chimney swift roost in West Virginia at Shepherd University’s Sara Cree Hall. At dusk, hundreds gather overhead in large flocks, the chatter rising in volume as their numbers grow, circling around and around over the roost site. Then, at the magic moment, they begin to drop into the chimney, a dozen or so at a time, almost like a funnel of little brown bodies draining the sky bit by bit as more and more drop into the roost.
“It’s just a phenomenal thing to watch,” said birder Nancy Kirschbaum. “It’s like going to the Serengeti and seeing the wildebeest migration. It’s a great spectacle.” Nancy and her husband Elliot have been watching and counting swifts for years—first in Baltimore, where they met 40 years ago as part of the Baltimore Bird Club—and then in Shepherdstown.
The Kirschbaums were among the group of birders who alerted the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS) to an impending disaster last year. Shepherd University planned to demolish Sara Cree Hall and its chimney, meaning Shepherdstown could lose the state’s prime roosting site.
In Search of Firm Footing
Towns like Shepherdstown with historic old chimneys are important to swifts, according to Bridget Tinsley, Land and Watershed Program Manager at PVAS. “Chimney swifts would prefer old growth forest with dead standing trees—that’s what they used to nest and roost in,” she noted. But European settlers cleared forests for farms and cut trees for timber. Standing dead trees became rare as America grew. In a short period of time (evolutionarily speaking) the swifts shifted to using chimneys instead of dead trees. Now, Tinsley pointed out, “these beautiful old towns with brick chimneys are rare as well.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists chimney swifts as a “Near Threatened” species, meaning they will likely become threatened in the near future. Their numbers are declining across North America according to the Chimney Swift Conservation Association.
Old chimneys are crucial to their conservation because swifts can only perch vertically when they land, not horizontally like most other birds. That means they need materials that their tiny feet can grasp onto as they cling to the chimney wall, like bricks with grooves in old chimneys. But newer chimneys often are lined with smooth material, such as metal. And most chimneys these days are also capped to prevent wildlife from climbing in—which keeps swifts out, as well.
That’s what happened at Shepherd University’s Knutti Hall several years ago. Knutti Hall used to house a large roost, but when Shepherd capped the boiler room chimney, the swifts shifted over to Sara Cree.
“It’s all about location, location, location,” said Joette Borzik, another birder who alerted PVAS to the impending loss. “Shepherdstown is on the river, and many birds use rivers to navigate during migration,” she added. “We’re so lucky around here—we live in a historic Civil War area—a lot of the old buildings are preserved, so we provide habitat that the swifts can’t find elsewhere.” Borzik has documented smaller roosts of several dozen or so elsewhere in the area, such as in the Charles Town Post Office. None of the other roosts are as large as the one at Sara Cree Hall, but combined, they can contribute to conserving the species.
A Group Effort Emerges
Once PVAS alerted Shepherd to the threat, university officials sprang into action to resolve the crisis. Chimney swifts are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Species Act. “We heard from the community and PVAS and felt an obligation to act,” explained James Vigil, Vice-President for Administration at Shepherd. Vigil said Sara Cree Hall has outlived its useful life and is in a prime location for other uses. And so, together, the university and PVAS reached an agreement: Sara Cree would come down this May as planned, and the university would uncap the chimney at Knutti Hall immediately. But Knutti can only hold about 1,000 birds at a time, and last year, volunteers counted up to 1,400 swifts at Sara Cree.
To maintain the state’s largest roosting site of chimney swifts, another site would be needed.
After consulting with federal and state agencies, and its own faculty, university officials identified a new roost site on campus: a drainage easement along University Avenue near Shepherd Grade Road. Both birders and the university think the site is perfect. It’s close to the river, is situated on a wetland providing lots of insects for food, and will never be built on. PVAS is designing an artificial roosting tower 30 feet tall to mimic a chimney on the site. The challenge now is constructing it in time for the swifts.
Right now, as swifts arrive in our region from South America, they nest alone—typically a single family in a chimney. The large spectacular roosts don’t occur until August and September, after the young have fledged and birds from farther north start migrating south. By then, “… we’re getting not just the swifts that nest in Shepherdstown, but also others that have been nesting all the way up to Canada,” said Tinsley. The new tower will have to be completed in time for their arrival. “That will be a push,” she stressed.
PVAS has lined up free labor through the federal Job Corps training program based in Harpers Ferry, and the university has agreed to allow bricks from Sara Cree Hall to line the roost. But construction can’t begin until summertime, after graduation, and PVAS needs additional funding to cover materials and pay the engineers designing the roost.
Anyone wishing to learn more and help with the project can donate to the Raise the Roost campaign at www.potomacaudubon.org. Those who own historic buildings can uncap their chimneys to allow swifts to nest and roost there. And everyone who wants to see a spectacle of nature occur right before their eyes can do one simple thing come August, according to Tinsley: “Just look up.”