Shepherd and partners present plans for new swift habitat to public

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Bridget Tinsley, the Potomac Valley Audubon Society's land and watershed program manager giving a presentation on the chimney swift conservation effort.

THE PICKET- Shepherd University officials are proposing to build a roost for over a thousand chimney swifts that will be displaced by the demolition of Sara Cree Hall.

While details of the new roost are in the early planning stages, the University is working with the Potomac Valley Audubon Society to build a faux chimney for the near-threatened birds. The area around the storm water retention pond on west campus is currently favored because it hosts flying insects, which the swifts depend on for food, but no plans have been finalized.

Partnering with the Potomac Valley Audubon will allow Shepherd to circumvent the difficult approval process of building a new structure for the swifts’ roost, James Vigil, vice president of administration, said in a Tuesday night community meeting on the birds’ plight.

The society plans a fund-raising campaign in the fall, dubbed “Raise the Roost,” to help pay for the new structure, said Bridget Tinsley, the Potomac Valley Audubon’s land and watershed program manager. Until a plan is devised on the roost construction, no fund-raising goal has been set.

“We can’t start actively raising money until we know what we need to ask for,” Tinsley said. “The costs of these structures can be very expensive and vary widely.”

Early plans called for using recycled material from the Sara Cree chimney for the tower, but the Audubon Society is now investigating cheaper options. Collecting and cleaning the old bricks may ultimately be more expensive than buying new ones, Tinsley said.

“We need to explore our options and find the most efficient way to build this structure, this is a huge undertaking… We’re not even sure if we’ll make it out of bricks,” Tinsley said.

In the meantime, Shepherd uncapped the chimney at Knutti Hall boiler house in November for the birds, and will leave it open indefinitely.

The boiler house chimney has comparable space to the Sara Cree chimney and was used as a roost in the past before it was capped, Eric Shuler, director of facilities at the University, told the dozens of birdwatchers and Shepherdstown residents crowded into the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.

Shuler and others involved in the project said that the birds will readily return to the Knutti chimney when they see it is open, as bird watchers often report seeing the swifts investigate it.

Shepherd has been in talks with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, National Conservation Training Center, and Potomac Valley Audubon Society for months after assistant biology professor Dr. Sher Hendrickson-Lambert and others brought the near-threatened bird species to the attention of university officials.

“Sometimes getting people to the table is the hardest part of a project like this. That wasn’t the case here,” Tinsley said.

Those in the crowd were mostly pleased with the efforts of the university and its partners, but some were concerned over how Sara Cree would be properly honored after the building bearing her name is taken down. Vigil informed the crowd that a committee had been assembled to determine how to properly honor Dr. Cree.

The Potomac Valley Audubon Society is looking for people in the community to help with the fund-raising effort. Everyone from people with masonry or construction experience, to people who can raise awareness, monitor the birds, or periodically clean out the Knutti chimney are encouraged to take part.

Although a concerted fundraising effort hasn’t yet begun, anyone who wants to donate to the project can go to the Potomac Valley Audubon Society website’s donation page and comment that they’d like their donation to contribute to Raise the Roost.

Richard Bailey, the state ornithologist, praised Shepherd and the local community for “taking an unexpected situation and making gold,” in showing such interest in conserving the chimney swifts. He reminded the crowd that the situation with Sara Cree is part of a larger trend across North America of swifts losing habitat, and that to protect the swifts widespread outreach and advocacy will be needed.

Newer architecture doesn’t have chimneys suitable for the swifts to roost in, so chimney swifts rely on old architecture and shelters built for roosting. Most suitable chimneys on older houses have caps on them, and one of the easiest ways people can help the birds is to open them up, Bailey said.

“Because they rely on old architecture you see a gradual attrition as the buildings are taken down,” Bailey said to the crowd. “You don’t see swifts in new construction.”

One of Bailey’s goals is to develop a database of important swift roosts and use it to contact and educate property owners to convince them to let the birds use their chimneys.

“Habitat is big… if we want to keep a population close to what we have now, we’ll really need to tackle that,” Bailey said.

Chimney swifts are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and considered near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Their population has dropped 72 percent since 1966 due mostly to loss of suitable habitat.

Chimney swifts require rough vertical surfaces to rest and nest because they can’t perch with their small feet. In the past the birds used hollowed out tree trunks to roost and breed, but logging of old growth forests has left the species almost exclusively dependent on manmade structures. Chimney swifts often use small house chimneys to breed, with a single breeding pair nesting and a small number of other swifts sharing the chimney and sometimes helping the breeding pair care for their young.

However, chimney swifts rely on especially large chimneys to congregate during the fall in preparation for their migration to South America. They gather in the hundreds or even thousands and must fly as far south as the Amazon River basin. Sara Cree is significant to the species because it is one of the largest roosts in West Virginia, and regularly hosts well over a thousand swifts each October as they wait for favorable winds to carry them on their annual trek.

Sara Cree, formerly Shepherd’s athletic center, was completed in 1952, and has been slated for demolition since Shepherd University developed its 2013 Master Plan. This year the school began making plans for its deconstruction. The process included meeting with local construction and engineering firms, as well as meeting with agencies and conservationists to find ways to accommodate the birds. The Master Plan originally called for the construction of a new student center, but due to declining budgets and enrollment, the land will be turned into a gravel parking lot for the foreseeable future, said Shuler.

Anyone who wishes to volunteer with the Raise the Roost project is encouraged to contact Bridget Tinsley at bridget@potomacaudubon.org.

 

Demian Nunez is the Managing Editor of The Picket. He can be reached at dnunez01@rams.shepherd.edu