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Paul Wilson: Chimney swift slipping away – see its wondrous dive at dusk

Chimney swift numbers have dropped by more than 90 per cent in the last four decades. Hamilton starts monitoring the "cigar with wings" this year, and in Oakville an old high school provides a chimney-swift spectacle every night.
Kristyn Richardson of Bird Studies Canada and Nigel Finney of Conservation Halton promised a big show at dusk at the old Oakville High School. They delivered. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

I’m standing in a parking lot at dusk, waiting to witness a chimney-swift spectacle.

The location on this night is Oakville, but the show comes to Hamilton too.

You need a chimney, of course, preferably one that’s been around for a generation or two. Hamilton has plenty of those. And this year, for the first time, the city is going to try to count the chimney swifts who summer here.

But Oakville is ahead of us on that, which brings us back to that parking lot. It’s on Reynolds Street, in front of the old Oakville High School, the heart of town.

It opened 105 years ago. My mother, 85, went there through the war years. Now she – and my father – live right next door to the school, at the Wyndham Manor Long-Term Care Centre.

The chimney swift makes a long journey from South America. Once here, it flies from morning to night. (Mike Veltri/ Queen's University site)

Empty 20 years

Oakville has shown more patience with old schools than Hamilton. Oakville High has been empty 20 years. And still it stands – red-brick Collegiate Gothic style, designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

When my parents moved into Wyndham this spring, I started hearing about the swifts who come each year to the four chimneys of Oakville High. And how in the last couple of years people have come by to count them. They sit in lawn chairs at dusk, I was told.

This is a special session tonight, just three of us. There’s Kristyn Richardson, a stewardship biologist with Bird Studies Canada, which oversees the Ontario Swiftwatch Program. And Nigel Finney, a watershed planner with Conservation Halton. And me.

Overhead, getting ready to perform their remarkable disappearing act, there are fast-moving flocks of chimney swifts.

Famous bird man Roger Tory Peterson described the swift as "a cigar with wings." They migrate here from South America’s Upper Amazon basin. They are streamlined bombs, superb aerialists. They fly all day, scooping up flies, ants, wasps.

Barbara Wilson, aka Mom, went to Oakville High in the war years. The swifts were likely using the school's chimneys even then. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Threatened species

They liked beetles, a rich source of protein, but pesticides cut into that part of their diet. The population of chimney swifts has diminished by more than 90 per cent in the last 40 years. It’s designated as a threatened species both provincially and federally.

Scarce food sources can be part of the explanation. The other part is that suitable chimney stock is diminishing.

For instance, a massive chimney on the Otis Elevator site in North Hamilton is about to come down. The Ministry of Natural Resources looked into that one and ruled that the aged chimney is "a high-risk situation" and advised the owner to demolish it fast.

As for new chimneys, they often have caps or designs that don’t allow swifts in. Or the chimneys might have a steel liner. "Those are death traps," Kristyn says.

Chimney swifts have powerful claws that allow them to cling to the side of a chimney. They sleep that way, they copulate that way. They even build their nests in half-saucer fashion and glue them to the inside of a chimney wall with saliva. But if the swift ends up in a chimney lined with smooth, slippery steel, it’s not coming out.

Whether or not it would have been a good home for chimney swifts, this big chimney on the former Otis Elevator site in North Hamilton is coming down soon. The Ministry of Natural Resources said it was dangerous. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Have to find the chimneys

 Two years ago, Conservation Halton started counting the swifts across the region – including Burlington, Milton, Oakville. It’s an imprecise science, because first you have to find the chimneys. They’re up to 34 chimneys now, but the four at old Oakville High are tops in the count.

There are about 100 birds here tonight. The sun set at 8.43. The sky is golden and the swifts are cavorting. They are like flakes of soot being scattered on the wind. They circle this way, then that, keeping up their high-pitched chitter.

Kristyn previews what’s about to happen: "It’s like flushing a toilet."

At 9.14, one swift dive bombs into the north-front chimney. Suddenly, it is as if these small, dark creatures had been poured through a funnel. Whoosh, they are gone, a hundred or so, all vanished in less than 60 seconds, down that chimney for the night.

Oakville High is set to become part of a new rec centre in a few years. The town promises to make sure the development complies with the Endangered Species Act.

The swift roosts all night by clinging to the walls of the chimney. It copulates that way too. (Bruce Di Labio/ Queen's University site)

Hamilton count starts now

Meanwhile, in Hamilton, the first swift watch is underway. Lesley McDonell, a terrestrial ecologist with the Hamilton Conservation Authority, is out this week at the chimney at the Veldhuis property in Dundas, where they’ve had a pair of swifts.

Lesley says chimney swift breeding or roosting sites in the Hamilton area are poorly known. "The volunteers I’ve gathered together are looking in the older sections of Hamilton, Ancaster, Dundas and Westdale for occupied chimneys. We’ll have a better idea after this summer." Their data will be sent to Bird Studies Canada.

Dates for the National Spring Migration Blitz are May 26, May 30 and June 3. For an online form to record the chimney swifts you see, click here.

We don't know much yet about where the chimney swift likes to go in the Hamilton area, but they have been spotted at the old Veldhuis greenhouse site in Dundas. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here. 

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