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Chimney Swift Migration Soon to Arrive in St. Adolphe

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Chimney Swift1 Tim Poole Barb Stewart Crop
Tim Poole and Barb Stewart of the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative Brenda Sawatzky

The May arrival of a bird species called the chimney swift is a much-anticipated event in St. Adolphe. So much so that the community has adopted the bird as its own, inviting bird watchers from around the province to witness the sight. As a result, St. Adolphe is known as the chimney swift nesting capital of Manitoba.

The name of the bird, a relative of the Swift species, is derived from its habit of taking advantage of mortared chimneys to roost (rest) at night and eventually construct a nest and breed.

Barb Stewart is a biologist, Ritchot resident, and long-time volunteer for the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative (MCSI). She and her husband Rob have been integral in helping monitor and update data on the bird’s nesting habits here at the edge of the species’ migration route.

Today, only five old brick chimneys remain on four historical buildings in the community, many of which have been restored from their crumbling state in order to preserve the birds’ familiar nesting spots.

“I’m more heavily involved in the research,” says Stewart. “I can help generate nesting success and reproductive success. Before this research started in St. Adolphe, the best data that Canadian scientists were using… were 1949 New York State statistics.”

The anticipation of the bird’s arrival each year is partly linked to the fact that it’s considered an at-risk species, both federally and provincially, and it’s on the threatened list internationally. Stewart works closely with Tim Poole, coordinator of the MCSI, which is hosted by Nature Manitoba, a non-profit organization.

“The chimney swift has declined in Canada by 90 percent since the 1970s,” Poole says. “In Manitoba, we basically sit at the northwest periphery of its global range, and when a species declines it always declines from its edges… We’re probably at the frontline of trying to help this species here in Manitoba because we’re at that edge.”

The rapid decline of the species has been attributed to a number of circumstances, namely the loss of old brick chimneys to modern heating systems. Any chimneys being erected today have slippery linings and capped tops, preventing their usefulness to the chimney swift.

The increased use of pesticides has also reduced the number of insects available for food. Climate change, too, has caused new weather patterns such as drought, high winds, and heavy rainfalls, conditions which didn’t used to be so severe.

These factors all work against the survival of the species.

Poole says that to understand the importance of the chimney swift, we need to recognize what these birds do on a practical level for humans and the environment. Chimney swifts are aerial insectivores, consuming about a thousand flying insects per day per bird. Similarly, other insect-eaters like swallows, whippoorwill, and the night hawk are also becoming endangered in the north.

“They are doing a real practical role for us,” Poole says. “If we lose this whole suite of birds, we’re going to be putting more chemicals into our system to control these insects.”

A strong believer in habitat stewardship, he wants everyone to recognize that creatures such as the swift are an important part of a healthy ecosystem, with its intricate system of checks and balances. Saving the birds means saving the environment and humanity from the overuse of toxic insecticides.

For this reason, the MCSI has been actively campaigning for the restoration of old chimneys. As well, they’ve erected hollow brick towers around the province, similar to an initiative in Texas that has proved successful. One of these towers sits on the site of the St. Adolphe Parish, along with an interpretive plaque for residents and bird enthusiasts to learn about the species.

Unfortunately, none of the towers have so far been successful in attracting chimney swifts for nesting.

“We have birds repeatedly playing follow-the-leader games over the tower, and they drop down but they won’t enter,” Stewart says. “So something about the recipe that is so successful in Texas does not work in Manitoba.”

Beyond the birds’ endangered species status, Poole and Stewart say the chimney swift is an incredibly fascinating bird to watch. They are described as charismatic and very social in nature. Because they’re an aerial insectivore species, they have no ability to perch. Instead they spend the majority of their time flying, stopping only to roost after dark or to build a nest and lay eggs.

Their strong claws work like grappling hooks to cling to the rough inside edges of a chimney. Bristly tail feathers provide them with an added level of grip. They also demonstrate impressive aerial displays, descending into urban chimneys in fast, kamikaze-style dives or slow, foot-first drops.

Monitors at the Assiniboine School in Winnipeg’s St. James neighbourhood have noted up to 100 swifts roosting in their chimney at one time. Once they move to their eventual nesting sites, a chimney will only be occupied by one nesting pair, and occasionally one or two helper birds that assist in building the nest and feeding the young. Nests are built with a collection of small twigs and are attached to the side of the chimney using the bird’s sticky saliva.

From the first time Stewart witnessed the ascent of the chimney swift in St. Adolphe, she was hooked.

“It was what I imagine a little crack cocaine fix is like,” Stewart jokes. “I think I’m addicted.”

Curiosity seekers should begin to see the birds arriving in St. Adolphe near the end of May. Updates on their arrival will be available on the MCSI website.

Throughout the month of June, the adult birds will be visible throughout the daylight hours, swooping in to build nests and eventually feed their young and provide them with flight training. Each adult pair can have a clutch of between two to seven birds.

In past years, the chimney swifts tended to spend the summer months at their nesting site. As of late, they have been leaving as soon as the young are ready to take the long trek home.

“The birds can hardly wait to get out of Dodge the last couple of years, because summer weather has been so horrendous [with] extreme heat and smoke from forest fires,” says Stewart.

As well, an increase in summer fogging and spraying for mosquitoes is reducing their food source earlier.

“What these birds really need is champions,” Poole says. “Having people champion in the cause of these birds has been critical in the initiative since it was founded.”

Stewart likens Poole to a caped crusader for the species, referring to his dedication in rescuing nests with eggs that people have removed from chimneys as well as fledglings that have become trapped inside the buildings to which the chimneys are attached. In some circumstances, where little ones have fallen from a nest, they are sent to a rehabilitation facility in Ontario to ensure they’ll be ready to make the migration south again.

“We share the environment with these birds and if they are indicating through population declines that something is wrong with the environment, that means we could be suffering similarly,” Stewart warns. “There’s a health issue… Are we starting to challenge ourselves with water quality issues, food quality issues, air quality issues? Well, these birds are sending [mankind] messages and feedback [on that].” Historic buildings where the native chimney swift can be viewed include the St. Adolphe Parish, the future childcare centre at 372 Main Street, Club Amical at 344 Main Street, and the residence at 395 Main Street. Walking tour maps are available at the RM office. 

For more information

www.mbchimneyswift.com

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