Save Our Swifts: Modeling a Solution between Conservation and Development

Throughout Bethlehem, the story of the collaboration between activists and developer John Noble to save a chimney swift migration habitat has spread. Southsider has previously published articles that feature details about these incredible birds and the project to help them flourish. In this third panel about the Save Our Swifts initiative, panelists explored more broadly how Bethlehem and Lehigh Valley communities can live cooperatively with the other species around us. This panel celebrated what John Noble has accomplished by saving the chimney for the swifts, and highlighted the kind of ecologically-minded development and partnership this effort is modeling. This panel was possible thanks to collaborators like Bethlehem Area Public Library, Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium, South Side Initiative, and Lehigh Valley Audubon Society.

Notes from the Panelists

Developer John Noble, one of the key players in the Save Our Swifts Initiative, spoke first and shared about his background and why this project resonated with him. Noble emphasized that conservation and concern for nature has always been part of his work. A key principle of his development work is to leave a property better off than when he acquired it. This often means increasing the numbers of trees and native plants that are growing on the site. When Jennie Gilrain approached him about the chimney at the old Masonic Temple that she had determined was a migration site for chimney swifts, Noble delved into research about the project and how he could amend his plans to save the swift’s habitat. Now, the original chimney structure remains, and is designed to be an integral part of the restaurant and event center that Noble will build on the site. The Go Fund Me for the project will support further education about chimney swifts and the purchase of appropriate technology to live-stream the birds as they migrate and roost, so that community members and visitors can get a taste of the lives of our bird neighbors. If you are excited to catch a glimpse of the chimney swifts migrating in vast numbers in the fall, Noble suggests that Cherokee Street offers prime viewing!

A still image of John Noble, during his panel presentation at the third Save Our Swifts panel.

For Peter Saenger, President of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, this kind of willingness by developers to collaborate with activists was unheard of. Saenger has considerable experience trying to advocate for dozens of organizations trying to save marshes, forests, and eagles, but stated that 99% of these attempts at conservation with developers failed. Saenger noted that the path forward is educating developers in our area about this particular example, and further educating them about the impacts of our urban environment on plants and wildlife. Noble chimed in again and stated that the collaborative, explanatory tone that Gilrain approached him with was the key to catching his attention. Rather than feeling accused, Noble was excited to learn more and do what he could to contribute, thanks to this collaborative approach.

Scott Burnet, the Habitat Committee Chairman for the Audubon Society of Lehigh Valley, shared a little about the unique chimney swifts themselves, which you can read about in detail here. One astonishing fact that Burnet had not shared before was about the extreme effort that goes into creating a chimney swift nest. Since chimney swifts cannot perch on horizontal surfaces, they have to retrieve the twigs that they use to construct their nests on the wing, or in flight. They do a fly-by of a twig on a tree and nip at it. They do this fly-by again and again until the twig falls, and then they must catch it in mid-air before it hits the ground. Swift nests involve hundreds of twigs, so you can imagine how long the construction process takes!

Lynn Rothman, Chair of the Environmental Advisory Council of Bethlehem (EAC), offered insights into municipal avenues for creating change in ecologically-friendly policies and practices. The EAC develops policy proposals and research projects, makes recommendations, executes projects, and provides education on environmental concerns like local government land use and sustainability practices. One of their big projects was the recently released Bethlehem Climate Action Plan. Rothman framed the EAC as an established resource that can help shift the tide of environmental policy and practice in Bethlehem.

Panelist Karen Beck Pooley, Professor of Practice and Director of the Environmental Policy Design Program at Lehigh University, contextualized this unprecedented collaboration within a general shift in understanding of the role of nature in Western thought. Previously, nature was seen as distinct or separate from cities, but our society is becoming increasingly aware of how things like rivers dictate where cities are developed or how fast cities grow. The chimney swifts are likewise evidence of the adaptability of nature to our human-built environments. Thus Pooley stressed that it doesn’t take a lot of space to build habitats for animals that share our urban spaces, and that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in helping nature and the built environment support each other. 

A still image of 4th grader Emma Huertas as she gave her presentation at the Save Our Swifts panel.

The star of the night was 4th grader Emma Huertas. Emma emphasized the beauty and utility of the swifts, and noted that when she sees the swifts fly, they remind her of a dainty princess. For Emma, the swifts aren’t just birds, but part of our Bethlehem family. Emma asked the community to save chimneys when we can, build new ones for nesting, and thereby ensure these birds have homes. She was especially excited about the idea of building a nesting chimney near her school, so the students could see the birds in the process of building their nests.

Imagining Solutions

After each panelist presented, they put their heads together to articulate ideal steps forward to ensure that beyond the chimney John Noble saved, the Bethlehem community can continue to help these swifts flourish. One panelist suggested we update building codes so that they are better for supporting the swifts, for example including specialized ordinances for buildings and chimneys where swifts are known to roost. These code changes would loosen requirements so that if a chimney is being updated during construction, the codes won’t require caps and steel flues if swifts regularly use that chimney. Burnet also highlighted that these birds are federally protected, but that this is true only when they are active, and the chimneys that they use are not protected during the off-season. One way forward on a federal level would be to make this protection more expansive, to include their habitats during the off-season. 

Pooley noted that there is an upcoming summer project with Lehigh students to document swift nests and note places where new chimneys could be built for the swifts. Jennie Gilrain raised the possibility of developing stronger and broader coalitions between more developers and activists. Noble emphasized that framing ecological considerations as economics wins for developers is a strong way to move forward with building these kinds of relationships. Gilrain also noted an initiative she has started to build a partnership between the 4th graders at Emma’s school and schools in Bolivia and Peru, where the swifts migrate to during the winter. Such a partnership would allow the students to exchange information about the swifts.

Finally, Emma suggested that we certainly should build more swift towers so chimney swift pairs can nest this spring and summer, and in years to come. If you are interested in undertaking this project, you can check out a book about building these towers at Bethlehem Area Public Library! You can also contact Scott Burnet about building the swift towers, and Jennie Gilrain if you want to get involved in other ways.

These swifts have made a home in Bethlehem. This coalition of panelists will hopefully inspire more community members to consider the new relationships they can build by protecting the ecology and wildlife around us.

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