Save Our Swifts: Civic Development For the Birds

The swirling hurricane of thousands of tiny black birds plunging into the Masonic Temple chimney at the gateway to the southside of Bethlehem is certainly a beautiful and haunting sight to see. It is also a reminder of the ways that nature all around us has adapted to the structures we build for our own human purposes. These tiny dark birds swirling in the evening sky are chimney swifts. They can be seen in such vast numbers in Bethlehem during their migrations in April and returns south in October. The swifts are important to the ecologies of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, and are fascinating for their unique adaptations which make the chimney their home. Sharing their incredible story is part of an initiative for Bethlehem to save our swifts and the habitats in which they thrive.

As of February 2nd, Chimney Swifts have been adopted as the bird of Bethlehem. Yet recognizing them as beautiful creatures that live alongside us isn’t enough. Their home was in danger. In this particular case, the chimney attached to the Masonic Temple off 378 was in danger of being torn down earlier this year. This one chimney is home to an estimated thousands of migrating chimney swifts each year. Relocating the chimney wasn’t an option, as the birds have a specific knowledge of the chimney’s location, and relocating the chimney wouldn’t necessarily result in the birds finding their home again. The birds didn’t even know it, but their home might not have be their home anymore. Yet John Noble and local bird lovers were determined to save the chimney for the swifts! A team from Bethlehem that includes Jennie Gilrain, members of the Audubon Society, SSI, and others worked with developer John Noble to explore how to save this chimney. Noble, working with his construction team, ultimately found a way to preserve the chimney even as the Temple was demolished. Today, all that is left on the site is the swifts’ home.

The swifts’ Masonic Temple chimney, surrounded by the demolition earlier this year.

The passionate care for the swifts and their role in our local environment have inspired many to find a way to support this effort. Local organizations like Bethlehem Area Public Library (BAPL), South Side Initiative, Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, Bethlehem City Environmental Council, Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium, and organizer Jennie Gilrain have worked closely with the developer John Noble to find the resources and appropriate architectural plan to save the chimney for the swifts, without  considerably hindering Noble’s business and development project. These swifts have quite a team rooting for them, and the first part of the project is to share knowledge and resources with residents of Bethlehem who might not yet know about these incredible birds. To that end, BAPL hosted an educational seminar to educate Bethlehem residents about the project and chimney swifts in general. You can watch the first public forum, presented by Peter Saenger, here.

There is a lot to love about these little birds. Chimney swifts are five to six inches long, but they fly so high above our buildings and heads, that they often only register as tiny specks in the sky. They are not perching birds—they are actually physically incapable of perching on a branch or even standing on the ground, like the familiar robin might. Instead, they have evolved very long and sharp claws that allow them to cling to vertical surfaces. Before the colonization of the Americas, these little birds roosted in hollowed out trees. Due to the great amount of deforestation that accompanied the colonization of North America, their traditional habitat was much scarcer, so they adapted, and started nesting in chimneys—incredibly abundant architectural features in early American architecture. But as the industrial revolution slowed, and American started capping chimneys and using gas to heat their homes, chimneys too, started becoming less available for chimney swifts to roost in.

Chimney swifts use their glue-like saliva to construct nests on the insides of chimneys.

Aside from valuing chimney swifts simply in terms of ecological diversity, these little birds are also very quirky, and helpful, little creatures. An individual swift eats 1,000 to 12,000 flying insects—like beetles and mosquitos—a day, keeping bug populations under control and reducing the ever increasing risk of vector-born diseases that humans face. The chimney swift also has a very sticky, glue-like saliva, which they use to attach twigs and branches to the sides of chimneys as nests. They range very widely in their migration, from the Eastern half of the United States during the warmer months, and flying 3500 miles to Brazil, Peru, and the Northwestern quadrant of South America during our winter months. They are also very fastidious and clean birds. Many homeowners unsuspectingly host chimney swifts for years! Finally, not much is known about the relationships between chimney swifts. Though it seems clear that mating pairs are monogamous for the length of nesting and raising their young, chimney swifts have been seen to host a third bird during their nesting phase. Are these birds courting? Is it a love triangle? Do they have extended family kinship that we don’t yet understand? These mysteries are also part of the joy of coming to understand these quirky birds.

The chimney swift as a species has seen a 72% decline in the last 50 years, due in part to habitat loss like chimney capping (or making chimneys out of steel, which they cannot cling to), but also due to their favorite food, beetles, decreasing in population thanks to widespread pesticide use. Without chimneys to roost in, these birds are in danger of predators and harsh weather. Evidently, saving the chimney at the site of the old Masonic temple is one way the John Noble and the residents of Bethlehem have helped our chimney swifts thrive.

An example of the many nesting chimney swift towers that the LV Audubon Society has constructed.

The Lehigh Valley Audubon society has been helping chimney swifts thrive as well, creating chimney swift towers on public land for the birds to nest in. But the birds tend to nest singularly, and migrate in groups, so the chimney is a key way-station, a gathering place, on their migratory path. Part of the Save Our Swifts initiative is about raising money to make the restoration and incorporation of the chimney into the new development feasible. You can contribute here, if you’d like! But part of the project is simply to do what ornithology (or the study of birds) has always done: incorporate the science and observations and passion of amateurs to learn more about the ways birds live in our world. And a second feature is to identify ways that residents of Bethlehem and developers can support swift habitat in our community, building a city that is truly for the birds and ourselves.

There are upcoming opportunities for you to take part and learn more! The second and third webinars hosted by BAPL in the Save Our Swifts initiative will continue in the coming months. On March 11th,  the webinar will explore methods of construction and incorporating historical and ecological artifacts can help us build other societal values into economic development plans. And on April 21st, a panel of key players in the initiative will consider how this project models a solution for cooperation between activists and developers in other contexts. It might be up to us humans to save the swifts’ chimney, but the birds in turn have taught us a lot in the process about what it looks like to adapt our construction plans to consider them, too.

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