May 26th, 2016
RECENT COVERAGE Reggies Regulars: Accidental Birdwatchers
May 12th, 2016
Chimney Swifts Return to Summertime Home: Roosting in the Sault Ste. Marie Post Office Chimney ~by Steffanie Petroni
The spectacular presentation of chimney swifts in downtown Sault Ste. Marie has, until recently, only been appreciated by a handful of local naturalists and birders. But it is thanks to this small group that the opportunity to study these amazing little creatures and their fascinating behaviour has originated.
With their natural habitat –often large hollow trees, disappearing from the landscape, over the past many decades chimney swifts have adapted to manmade environments, finding roosting and nesting places in uncapped and unlined brick chimneys. For many years, thousands of these tiny aerial insectivores poured in and out of the Sault Ste. Marie Courthouse chimney. A smattering of area birders faithfully gathered to watch the daily and nightly rituals every spring and summer. Thanks to their observations it was discovered that upon their return a few years ago, the birds were no longer entering the courthouse chimney. Investigation into the matter revealed that over the course of the winter the courthouse chimney had been capped at the top, preventing thousands of chimney swifts from returning to their familiar roost. Fortunately, the chimney swifts quickly found a suitable habitat not too far away- just across Queen Street in fact, in the Post Office chimney. The courthouse eventually removed the chimney cap but the birds have taken a liking to their new home.
The situation alerted Dr. Jennie Pearce to the risks threatening these birds. Working with a team out of Algoma University and the Sault Naturalists, the Algoma Swiftwatch project received three years of funding through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry Stewardship grant. Last year the group was required to work out the logistics involving the placement of three cameras in and outside of the Post Office chimney and focused efforts on community outreach. Now entering its’ second project year, it’s lights, camera and action.
Dr. Pearce elaborated that the installation of the cameras serves two purposes. “The cameras will help raise awareness and make the activities of the birds more accessible to Sault Ste. Marie. And then there is a research component as well. We would like to know how much of the chimney they are using, whether they move inside the chimney related to temperature changes and we’re hoping that the cameras can give us a really accurate count of the number of swifts using the chimney.”
Chimney swifts have been classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Though the chimney swift is protected under the Act, the manmade habitats that they have been forced to evolve to are not. “You can’t change or touch a chimney while the birds are actually in there because the bird is protected. However, once the birds have left for the winter it is legal to cap a chimney and destroy a roost in that way,” explained Dr. Pearce.
“One of the reasons we are interested in how much of the chimney they are using is so that we can try to develop habitat management guidelines for the chimney. People tend to want to cap their chimneys but if chimney swifts are only using the top portion of the chimney then it may be possible to cap lower down without destroying the habitat,” remarked Dr. Pearce.
But capped chimneys may not be the only variable threatening the chimney swift population, predation also puts the tiny bird at risk of endangerment. The camera installed outside of the chimney is intended to give researchers an opportunity to count the chimney swifts and to see if there are other birds predating on the chimney swifts as they enter and exit the chimney. Viewer discretion may be advised!
There isn’t much documented information about Sault Ste. Marie’s chimney swifts but there are many anecdotes that area birders enjoy sharing. At one time watching the chimney swifts return to the chimneys around town, like the Collegiate Heights chimney or the old brewery chimney, were regular family outings. Some say that they witnessed as many as 10,000 chimney swifts returning to one chimney. Astounding given the estimate that only 11,829 chimney swifts are suspected remaining in Canada today.
Dr. Pearce encourages everyone to share their stories about their encounters with chimney swifts. And if anyone has recent information regarding nests or chimneys where swifts have been spotted please drop an email to email@example.com.
On May 28th, from 7 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., the Algoma SwiftWatch project is hosting ‘Swift Night Out’. The community is invited to gather on the Sault Ste. Marie Courthouse lawn to watch the chimney swifts return home for the evening. Children’s games, snacks and music are on the agenda.