The creation of the Vaux’s Swifts new habitat

Vaux’s swifts, a group of migrating birds are known for the dazzling displays they create as they funnel into brick chimneys to roost for the night. But as some brick chimneys are being replaced and demolished these birds are losing their habitat. Our environmental reporting partner EarthFix has the story.


Vaux's Swifts, a group of migrating birds, are known for the dazzling displays they create as a funnel into brick chimneys to roost for the night.

But as some brick chimneys are being replaced and demolished, these birds are losing their habitat.

Our environmental reporting partner Earth Fix has the story.

[ Laughter ]

Urban bird watching doesn't normally require stadium seating, but that changes on September evenings in Portland.

At Chapman School, huge crowds gather to watch as thousands of Vaux's Swifts prepare to drop into the chimney to roost for the night.

They are gathering and swirling in every direction, and then as they somehow collectively decide this is the place to be for tonight, they start forming into a funnel, and then birds will just start dropping faster and faster out of this funnel.

What triggered that, how they don't bump into each other... All these other cool questions in science.

It's just an amazing phenomenon.

It's dramatic, and you can see it in the evening.

You know, you don't have to get up early in the morning like all the crazy birders do, and see this giant collection of birds disappear.

Swifts would normally roost in hollow old-growth tree trunks, but most of those were wiped out by logging.

So the Swifts started using old chimneys instead.

Inside, they cling to the walls and huddled together to stay warm, but now these chimneys are disappearing, too.

The chimneys that work, all of them had to be built before World War II.

Around 1940-ish, fire codes changed, and they had to put in a liner.

Before World War II, you made your chimneys just out of bricks.

And the little birds can hang on the bricks.

But when they put a smooth concrete liner inside, they've got nothing to hang onto.

So the ones that are being used now are old and crumbling and ready to fall down.

Older chimneys aren't likely to survive a big earthquake, so many of them are being torn down.

Larry Schwitters is leading an effort to save or replace the Swift habitat in these chimneys.

His latest project is in Albany, where the city recently demolished an old firehouse.

It doesn't look like it has much of a chimney, but nearly 20,000 Swifts were known to roost there in the spring.

Where will they go now?

Schwitters is hoping they'll fly a few blocks farther to a new chimney he's building just for them.

A dedicated Vaux's Swift roost made this way has never been done before.

The idea is, this will be the first one, and if it works, we're gonna have one of these maybe every 100 miles all the way along the migration.

So when the chimneys crumble and get torn down, this way, they still got a place to roost.

The concrete cylinder is made up of thick pipe sections.

This is like a Tinkertoy project.

This is LEGOs all over again, for big boys.

I think there's half-a-dozen pieces of concrete stacked one upon another.

It's designed to function just like an old brick chimney.

Jim Fairchild with the Audubon Society of Corvallis is hoping the birds will like it just as well.

A lot of chimneys nowadays have a liner that's a smooth surface, which is great for smoke and so forth, but not so good for the Swifts.

You usually don't see this in big pipe sections.

But here, the birds can hang on with their little claws, and this scoring has been done on all of the sections to the very top of the chimney.

But how do you get the birds to switch over to the new roost?

This is genuine Vaux's Swift guano, A.K.A. Swift poop.

The idea is we throw it in the chimney in the bottom, and it's got an odor supposedly that the Swifts can smell.

And if they fly over it and take a sniff, they will think, 'Hey, Swifts have used this before.

This is a good one.

You can smell it.'

The sweet smell of success, Larry.

Will the birds go for it?

They don't know.

There is no guarantees this is going to work.

This is the pilot project.

This is an experiment.

What we think we need to do is get these birds the first migration that they come through, that they don't have a roost site.

That's why we're in a hurry.

For weeks after the chimney is complete, they watch the sky at dusk and wait.

Now, where are they?

So far, the birds have flown by the new chimney, but they haven't gone in yet.

Well this is maybe the 11th or 12th day of monitoring the use of the tower here, seeing if any Swifts are coming in.

And so far nobody's investigated it that we've seen.

A lot of the Swifts are hanging around above the fire station.

Sometimes they will drift this way, we'll see them over in the parking lot.

They haven't abandoned the demolished fire station roost.

They're still looking around.

When the birds are in view, they have a trick to lure them in.

So, now there's about 30, 35 birds over there.

So I'm going to go ahead and turn on the broadcaster.

We have half-a-dozen tracks and let's turn up the sound.

The broadcaster is just sending out Swift calls.

And the idea is -- 'Where are these other Swifts?'

Birds are often communicating with each other and we're guessing that those birds checking out the old fire station are maybe wandering over here to see who is here.

Without the fire station chimney, it's unclear where the Swifts will go to roost.

But they're not coming here, at least not tonight.

Fairchild says he's prepared to wait.

Our guess is it will probably be several years before we have any idea if this is working or not, and we'll probably have to give it half-a-dozen years to really start getting a handle on it.

It could be a perfect design for them, but it is something that's hard to gauge.

Every year, the birds migrate south in the fall, and they come back in the spring.

Eventually, he hopes to see a display just like the one at Chapman School, with thousands of birds stopping in for a good night's rest.