Wake County

Chimney swift tower celebration planned at Prairie Ridge

Earlier this week, members of Wake Audubon and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences did the ground work on the acre of land surrounding the 30-foot tall chimney swift roost tower at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation research laboratory at 1617 Gold Star Drive in west Raleigh.
Earlier this week, members of Wake Audubon and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences did the ground work on the acre of land surrounding the 30-foot tall chimney swift roost tower at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation research laboratory at 1617 Gold Star Drive in west Raleigh. hlynch@newsobserver.com

They’re holding a festival at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation this weekend to celebrate its new chimney swift tower and the tiny birds for which it was built.

But it’s not clear the guests of honor will show up.

Completed late last fall, the free-standing brick tower was designed to look like a chimney from an old school or office building – the kind that begin attracting chimney swifts by the thousands this time of year during the birds’ annual roosting season.

But so far, no swifts have begun roosting in the 30-foot artificial chimney, said John Gerwin, the curator of ornithology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which teamed up with the Wake Audubon Society to build it.

A flock does roost across the street in one of the chimneys at the N.C. National Guard headquarters, as they have for years, Gerwin notes.

“We hope they defect soon and come to ours,” he said.

More likely, said John Connors, a Wake Audubon board member and retired educator from the museum, chimney swifts from farther north will find the tower when they arrive in the next couple of weeks.

“The birds that are roosting right now are all resident birds,” Connors said. “So it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re going to use a roost they’ve always used. But that doesn’t mean that new birds coming in won’t move into our roost.”

The Prairie Ridge chimney did get some use this year. In the Triangle, chimney swifts pair up and build nests in small chimneys from April through July, and three adults fledged three offspring from a nest in the tower this summer, Connors said.

Come August, the swifts revert to their true nature as social birds and gather each evening in big flocks to roost in large chimneys, a substitute for the massive hollow trees they used before the forests were cut down. Using their feet and tail feathers for support, the birds cling to inner walls, packed in by the hundreds or thousands for the night.

The Prairie Ridge chimney was built in part to provide a new roosting spot at a time when the number of chimneys is declining. Modern heating systems no longer come with chimneys, and old ones get torn down or capped.

It also provides a place for people to come watch the gathering of the birds in the evening, as they circle and circle and call out before diving into the chimney. Roosting season in the Triangle lasts from August to October, when the flying insects on which the birds feed begin to die off and the swifts head toward their winter homes in South America.

The Prairie Ridge chimney is a little over six feet square, with 8-inch thick walls. It has port holes and small metal doors for cameras, cords and other equipment so scientists can watch the birds and maybe eventually count them as they come and go each night.

If swifts don’t find the chimney on their own, Connors said, ornithologists may begin playing recordings of chimney swifts to draw the birds in. But he’s not sure they’ll have to do that.

“I am more optimistic now that we’ve had birds nest in the chimney,” he said. “That, to me, was confirmation that it was designed right from a bird-eye view.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Chimney swift events

Conservation Forum

Learn why chimney swifts have declined over the past decade and why they are almost entirely dependent on human structures to survive and thrive. Friday, 6 to 10 p.m., Environmental Conference Room in the Nature Research Center, 121 W. Jones St. Free.

Family Festival

See life through the eyes of a swift, build a nest, try on a pair of life-sized wings, take a guided nature walk. Craft activities, live music and food trucks also available. To celebrate the completion of the tower, there will also be a symbolic “housewarming party” and parade for the birds at 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m., Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife and Learning, 1671 Gold Star Drive in Raleigh. Free.

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