Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chimney Swifts Welcome at Southwestern University
Published in the Sun March 16, 2013

Erin Johnson and Bob Mathis

Erin Johnson began her college life in musical theater but was soon disillusioned by the world of artifice.  Drawn instead to the natural world, she took a job at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Birmingham, Alabama.  Every summer, hundreds of orphaned baby birds were brought to the center, many of them chimney swifts.  Swifts make fragile nests on the inside of uncapped chimneys.  When the babies hatch they make a lot of noise begging for food.  Hearing a racket in the chimney, many homeowners would use a broomstick to flush out the noisemakers, breaking the nest, and causing baby swifts to tumble into the fireplace.


The tiniest chimney swifts were the hardest ones to save.  Barely hatched before falling from the nest, the baby birds were hairless and their eyes were not yet open.  Erin not only had to hand feed them every fifteen minutes, but, prior to feeding, she had to swab the food through the mouth of an adult chimney swift in order to soak up some of the salivary enzymes essential for the babies to develop a normal immune system.


The rehabilitation center was amazingly successful at raising these chicks, and when they were old enough to fend for themselves, the swifts were released into the wild.  Swifts are a vital part of the ecosystem, keeping flying insects such as mosquitoes under control.


Chimney swifts spend most of the day in the air catching bugs.  They are unable to sit on a branch or wire and can only perch on vertical surfaces.  They attach their nests to the rough inner surfaces of hollow trees or old-fashioned brick and mortar chimneys.  As old chimneys are replaced by modern ones, the swifts are having difficulty finding proper nesting sites.  New chimneys are capped so birds cannot enter, and are often lined with metal to prevent fires.  The slick metal prevents the birds from perching or attaching nests.  The scarcity of nesting sites has caused a serious decline in population.


When Erin came to Southwestern University to study animal behavior, she did not lose her interest in chimney swifts.  She knew that conservationists are replacing lost habitat with towers built especially for nesting swifts, and she noticed that the vegetable garden on the edge of campus was a nice location for a chimney swift tower.  Erin applied for a SEED grant (Student Environmental Engagement and Development) to pay for materials, and then enlisted Bob Mathis, associate vice president for Facilities and Campus Services, as her general contractor.  Erin had already acquired a plan for an ideal swift habitat from an Austin conservation group, the Driftwood Wildlife Association.  Erin gathered a few of her friends from the animal behavior society, and Mr. Mathis cajoled some associates who liked to build things, and the group put together a combination chimney swift tower/information kiosk.


Chimney swifts winter in South America, and then come north to breed in the spring.  The migration is increasingly difficult because many of the Central American forests that used to provide sustenance during the trip have been cut down.  Swifts that successfully complete the trip arrive in our area by the middle of March, so the tower project was on a strict deadline.  Now that Southwestern University’s first chimney swift tower is complete, Erin will be watching every day to see if her guests arrive.

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