Historic smokestack could make new home for chimney swifts

A bird advocate says a landmark historical Kitchener smokestack could make a comfy new home for chimney swifts, which are a threatened species in Canada.

'It could be a potential to create habitat for this unique little bird'

Chimney swifts circle a smokestack. (Jim Williams)

A bird advocate says a historic downtown Kitchener smokestack surrounded by an ongoing development construction project could make a comfy home for a threatened species.

The century-old smokestack at the Lang Tanning building at Joseph Street and Linden Avenue in downtown Kitchener is being outfitted with a set of eight LED lights this fall. The lights will be installed around the square base section of the stack and will cast a green light on the structure, with the capacity for blue, white or red light as well.

Plans to illuminate the nearly 55-meter structure have drawn criticism from some local environmentalists, who say the light could harm birds, particularly during migration.

"When lighting is directed upwards into the sky, in particular, it tends to disorientate migrating birds," Roger Suffling, with Waterloo Region Nature told CBC News. "They fly around in a spiral, the get confused...and then they smack into the structure, and then many of them get killed, many get injured."

A good home

Ontario swift watch coordinator Liz Purves agrees. Lights can be a dangerous distraction for some birds. But she said the stack could also be an ideal habitat for chimney swifts, provided the lights were turned on only well after sunset after the birds have already returned to roost. 

"Chimney swifts need an open chimney, or a stack-like structure," Purves told Craig Norris, host of the Morning Edition on CBC Radio. "It needs to be made out of textured materials, like brick or concrete, something that they can cling on to, and basically the taller the better."

Chimney swifts are flying-insect eaters that spend most of their time airborne, only clinging to walls inside chimneys, caves and trees at night.

"They're often called 'the cigar with wings,'" said Purves. "You'll see them flying high over head, above city centres, and they kind of look like a cigar shape with really long, pointed wings like a boomerang."

They're a threatened species across Canada, Purves said, facing a population decline of about 90 per cent since the 1970's. However, unlike much of the rest of the country, Kitchener still boasts a significant population of chimney swifts. 

"Swifts definitely call downtown Kitchener home," she said. "There is a really high density living in Kitchener, probably because of the availability of open [factory] chimneys, which they use for nesting in, as well as for resting in."

She said in the past, habitats have been made for swifts by uncapping stacks like the old Lang tower.

"It could be a potential to create habitat for this unique little bird," she said.

Developer, Allied Properties REIT owns the tower and plans to have the lights installed on the stack before winter, at an estimated cost $136,000, which will be paid by the company.

At the height of its business in the early 20th century, the Lang Tanning Company was said to be the largest manufacturer of shoe leather soles in the British Empire and a major manufacturer of military saddle material during the First World War. 


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