Editor's Note: After learning about serious allegations against Jason Ward, the National Audubon Society has severed its ties with him.
Five months after I bought my first pair of binoculars, I attended my first birding event: a swift-watching party, hosted by the Atlanta Audubon Society. These kinds of gatherings take place every fall across the country to bring awareness to the issues plaguing Chimney Swifts, a North American species that’s plummeted by as much as 53 percent over the last 50 years due to tree loss, pesticides, and other factors. On that evening, I remember standing in amazement as hundreds of the graceful birds funneled into a large chimney at a high school in Atlanta, Georgia.
Six years later, now as an Audubon volunteer, I’m back on the swift beat for Exhibitat. To kick off the art, beer, and conservation celebration, I'm leading a shorter version of my monthly bird walk in Piedmont Park, my favorite green space in the city.
Piedmont Park is often referred to as the “Central Park of the South.” In fact, it was designed by the sons of the architect who created Central Park. The 190-acre grounds are packed with birdy environs, including the 11-acre Lake Clara Meer, the Six Springs Wetlands, and sweet gums, maples, and other tall trees that warblers seem to love in the North Woods. The famous Atlanta BeltLine also runs through the park, connecting old railroad corridors around the city with a 22-mile-long loop of nature and biking trails.
As the walk winds down, I steer the group to the northeast section of the park, an area known as “Piedmont Commons.” A relatively new addition, the commons attract bird species such as Indigo Buntings, American Goldfinches, and many more. It’s also where Atlanta Audubon installed its brand-new Chimney Swift Tower and native plant garden. The months-long project—funded by a private donation and a grant gifted from Audubon’s Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants—was completed at the end of the summer, and is finally being unveiled to the public today. Hence, the psyched birders and dozens of other folks buzzing about.
Back in June, I stood next to Lillie Kline, Atlanta Audubon’s habitat conservation program coordinator, as we watched construction crews pour the cement for the tower’s foundation. The 24-foot-tall structure is the first of its kind in Georgia; its smooth wood-and-steel surfaces serve as a safe place for swifts to roost and nest. Chimney Swifts have strong feet and curved talons that are perfectly designed to grasp vertical surfaces (their short legs prevent them from perching upright). They used to live in hollowed-out trees, until 18th-century colonists cleared out millions of acres of North American forests. The birds then adapted to dwelling in smokestacks and chimneys, until those, too, were torn down or capped.
Which leads us to the importance of swift towers today. With the new installation, Atlanta Audubon is hoping to coax a small, returning population to Piedmont Park—and contribute to the species' conservation on a continental scale. The native plants should also help. Chimney Swifts eat a large variety of insects (wasps, bees, ants, and beetles) that depend on trees, flowers, and shrubs. So, Kline and her team added 27 species of insect- and bird-friendly plants from the Georgia piedmont ecoregion to the space around the tower. Blazing star and winterberry holly are just two examples.
With the tower and garden now in action, all local swift enthusiasts can do is wait. “If you build it, they will come,” says Esther Stokes, chair of the Atlanta Audubon Society’s board of directors. After the bird walk, she and Executive Director Nikki Belmonte give me a rundown of their vision for the park and those who gather in it. One of the best aspects of the garden is that it can be replicated at home, Belmonte says. When people walk by and look at the species tags, she wants them to think, “I can plant these in my yard.”
As the fall day rolls on, artists take to the concrete path along the swift tower, transforming it into a gallery of colorful chalk etchings. The festivities continue with the reveal of a special-edition beer by Orpheus Brewing: a sour Indian Pale Ale aptly titled “Little Birds Have Fast Hearts.” The evening ends on a sweeter note, though, when Piedmont Park Conservation President and CEO Mark Banta shares a few words on how healthy habitat can engage Atlantans and benefit the greater population. By giving kids more avenues to nature, “we can solve a lot of the world’s problems,” he says.
That’s a sentiment I can get behind. The park’s been a sanctuary for my rapidly growing love of birds; I’ve scoured it with binoculars more than 300 times in the last 5 years. Now, with the tower and native plant garden, it can double as a sanctuary for swifts.
In a time when suitable habitat is disappearing across the board, my mission as a birder, Earthling, and Audubon volunteer includes conserving and restoring ecosystems. Here in the heart of Atlanta, that mission is alive and well. There’s no greater feeling than that.
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