What’s a Chimney Swift Without a Chimney?

North Carolinians are taking big steps to protect their swifts from becoming homeless.

Every September, at dawn and at dusk, Chimney Swifts fill the skies in a one-of-a-kind performance. The birds funnel in and out of the chimneys where they roost, sometimes in flocks of thousands. It’s a dizzying display—one that’s become scarcer in the last few decades.

The current global population of Chimney Swifts is believed to be around 15 million. Though that may seem large, it's much smaller than historical counts. Between 1966 and 2007, the number of Chimney Swifts in the United States declined 53 percent. During the same time, Canada’s population dropped 90 percent. The downward spiral is due to a housing crisis: Chimney capping and a large-scale switch to other heat sources have robbed the birds of their homes—and their namesake. Meanwhile, logging and farming operations are decimating their wintering sites in the tropics.

But conservation pioneers at the Wake Audubon Society in North Carolina are working hard to find homes for their local swifts, whose numbers dipped by 16 percent between 2003 and 2013. After three years, $36,000 out of pocket, and almost $50,000 in donations, the group is celebrating the completion of a 30-foot brick structure at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Ecostation in West Raleigh. "Time is of the essence," Rick LaRose, the president of Wake Audubon, says. "No other species of American bird is so dependent on humans, our homes, and the physical structures we provide."

The new Prairie Ridge Roost Tower, one of the first of its kind, can accommodate thousands of swifts, says John Connors, a Wake Audubon board member since 1976 and recently retired educator for the museum. What sets it apart from previous projects is that it’s specifically built for large flocks of roosting birds. "Researchers in Texas had already built nesting sites, so we wanted to test new waters," says John Gerwin, an ornithologist with the museum and treasurer for Wake Audubon. The tower, which could become a key rest stop for migrating birds, already has other conservation groups talking. Connors says that researchers from Quebec and New Brunswick have reached out to get advice on their own swift housing projects.

Right now there aren’t any birds occupying the Prairie Ridge Tower, and it could take a few years to establish a colony. But Gerwin is hopeful; he says that a pair of swifts nested in the tower soon after it was completed. "Now it’s a matter of advertising." One way to lure in new tenants is by using sound recordings from swifts—a "vacancy" sign of sorts. Gerwin says he’s already noticed birds checking out the site.

Opportunities to view the birds will continue around Raleigh through September and into October, when the birds set off on their migration to the Amazon. And even though the swift-watching parties will die down next month, the volunteers at Wake Audubon have made it clear that their endeavors are far from over. The plan now is to build smaller nesting towers around the main tower and landscape with bird-friendly plants. Gerwin says the main structure could become an observation point for scientists who want to study swift flocks. He also wants to install web cams (pending funding) in the near future.

Connors points out that people can make a difference at home, too. Homeowners can remove chimney caps during nesting season, for instance. For residents who don’t have an existing chimney, DIY nesting towers are an option. And anyone who already plays host to the acrobatic birds can help out simply by letting them be: "Fighting to keep existing swift sites is the way to go—if only for costs alone," Connors says.

Meanwhile, Gerwin says he’s in it for the long haul—a drastic change of heart for the long-time ornithologist. "I wasn’t convinced these [once-]common birds deserved time out of my busy schedule, but really, they’re holdouts linked to humans," he says. "Today we’re kicking them out of their homes during development projects aimed at cleaning up our cities, but there are ways to counter these losses—if enough people have the same change of heart as me."

"[Chimney Swifts] are amazing fliers, fierce hunters, and when you study them up close, you see how delicate, strong, and exquisite they are," says Anne Runyon, a local artist and board member at Wake Audubon. And with a snazzy new swift hotel in town, Raleigh residents will get a chance to do just that. Once the new neighbors move in (and hopefully they do), conservationists will be one step closer to bringing the Chimney Swift back home.