(THE PICKET) – Bird lovers are scrambling to find a new home for more than 1,000 chimney swifts that use the chimney at Sara Cree Hall as Shepherd University plans to demolish the building next year.
The chimney swift is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and neither birds nor nests can be removed from chimneys without a federally-issued permit.
With one of the biggest chimney swift roosts in the Eastern Panhandle, Sara Cree is a major site for the declining species to gather as they prepare to migrate to South America for the winter.
“Chimney swifts entering a roost are one of the great spectacles of the natural world. We are fortunate to have them roosting in Shepherdstown,” said Nancy Kirschbaum, a retired teacher and member of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. PVAS is a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, a non-profit dedicated to bird conservation and community education and outreach.
“Sara Cree has the highest total number of roosting birds reported recently in Jefferson County,” Kirschbaum said.
Shepherd University has been in communication with the Potomac Valley Audubon Society, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a plan to accommodate the birds in preparation for Sara Cree’s demolition.
Dr. Sher Hendrickson-Lambert, an assistant biology professor who teaches the ornithology class at Shepherd, is part of the University’s effort to help the swifts find a new home. Her commitment to bird conservation goes back to early in her career, when she did genetic research on the Andean condor to find possible ways to rebuild their population.
“A couple of hundred years ago we would have had old growth forests around here, and huge dead trees would have been left up…Now, since we changed the forest and cut all the big trees, chimney swifts rely on [manmade structures] for habitat,” Hendrickson said.
Chimney swifts are in the taxonomic order apodiformes, which translates into “no feet.” Chimney swift legs are so small they can’t perch, instead relying on rough vertical surfaces to cling onto for rest. They feed on flying insects.
Tyler Garret, one of Hendrickson’s research students, has been studying the swifts in Sara Cree since the beginning of the semester.
“We are studying these swifts in particular because we would like to know how many and how often these birds are going into Sara Cree. These numbers matter because chimney swifts are a protected species and there are plans to begin deconstruction on Sara Cree in the spring,” Garret said.
“I have personally counted 1,400 chimney swifts going into Sara Cree within a 30-minute period… These birds love this chimney to roost and nest in due to it being established for so long. But at the moment it is just for roosting for the night and migrating south for the winter.”
Swifts are attracted to old towns as they remember chimneys for generations. Sara Cree was built in 1951-52 and was once Shepherd’s sports center. It is no longer in use as a new wellness center was built in 2006. The site is ultimately going to be used to build a new parking structure in accordance with the university’s 2013 Campus Master Plan. In the interim, it will be used as a surface parking lot.
“These birds are neotropical migrants and travel thousands of miles to roost in chimneys they remember every year,” Garret said. “Since Shepherdstown and the surrounding areas are some of the oldest areas with structures, this causes the chimney swifts to be drawn here.”
Swifts have been rapidly declining in recent years, likely due to a combination of factors, including pesticide use and changing architectural practices. However, Hendrickson said, “We can’t completely assess all the causes of the decline.”
“Swifts help control insect populations because they can eat about a third of their body weight every day, which is a little over seven grams of bugs. If you multiply that by 1,400 birds you can have an impact on a lot of mosquitoes. Preserving these birds would just help that number keep rising,” Garret said.
Typically a single mating pair nests inside a chimney, raising their young from May to July. If there is enough space, many birds will congregate at a chimney to roost before their migration to the Amazon Basin in Peru in early fall.
Joette Borzik, who leads local public bird walks nearly every month for the Potomac Valley Audubon Society, filmed the swifts as they descended into the chimney last month during a birdwatching event organized by PVAS and posted the video to her channel wvbirdmom.
“Only one pair nests in a tower at a time! I find this fascinating. There are also swifts that choose to be non-breeders in a given year, but they help feed the young of a pair that does nest. This allows for better success of the clutch, and the swifts may even produce more than one clutch because of the added help,” Borzik said.
While Sara Cree is used as a roosting area, no evidence of nesting has been found at this point according to Valerie Owens, Shepherd’s media contact. Shepherd is working with the National Conservation Training Center and West Virginia Department of Natural Resources to follow best practices for inspection of the chimney.
If any nests are found, Shepherd has no intention of disturbing them or pursuing the federal permit that would be needed to demolish the building at this time, Owens said.
According to Hendrickson the primary concern about taking down Sara Cree’s chimney, rather than any potential impact on breeding, is that with fewer places to roost chimney swifts will possibly suffer higher mortality during their migration season.
Hendrickson says the bricks from the chimney will likely be saved after Sara Cree’s demolition so that they can be used to rebuild the chimney elsewhere, but no specific action has been confirmed by the university at this point.
In addition to potentially rebuilding the chimney, Facilities Management has agreed to look into uncapping the chimney at the Knutti Boiler House to accommodate the birds in the future.
Hendrickson said that purpose-built chimney swift towers have been discussed as well. Regardless of what path of action is chosen, she says that one thing students can do to help is raise money to rebuild the chimney or build new shelters when the time comes.
“This is a community project, and I think students should be a part of the effort,” Hendrickson said. “I think down the line we will definitely see students participate. It’s their campus, and I think that they will and should care.”
Demian Nunez is the Managing Editor of The Picket, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org