New Brunswick

Cute, rare birds roosting in chimneys across the province

New Brunswick's old-school architectural details don't just appeal to history buffs — they're also a magnet for the small, increasingly rare birds known as chimney swifts.

Chimney swifts are roosting, for a limited time only, in 20 New Brunswick sites

(Jim Williams)

New Brunswick's old-school architectural details don't just appeal to history buffs — they're also a magnet for the small, increasingly rare birds known as chimney swifts.

Swifts spend almost their whole lives airborne, living on insects and, unlike most birds, never perching. When swifts land, they cling to the walls inside chimneys, caves or trees. 

Look how cute this li'l guy is. (Wikipedia)

Toward the end of May and early in June, according to Maritimes SwiftWatch co-ordinator Amy-Lee Kouwenberg, "they all flock up at this time of year and sort of swirl around your head, twittering."

SwitchWatch is part of Bird Studies Canada, a national NGO for bird conservation. The group organizes bird-watching outings to count the swifts in early spring and get an idea of their population in Canada.

Not doing so great

The chimney swift is listed as a species at-risk in Canada, and their numbers have "declined by 95 percent since the 1960s," said Kouwenberg.

"Of all birds, they're doing the worst."

The decline of the species mirrors that of other aerial insectivores, including swallows, who survive by eating bugs caught in mid-flight.

While climate change and pesticide use on the bugs the bird eats have contributed to the decline of the chimney swift, another obvious factor, Kouwenberg said, is that there are fewer homes with suitable chimneys for nesting.

"A lot of people are lining their chimneys for insurance purposes," she said, "and the swifts can't use them because there's nothing for them to grab onto."

She said not lining your chimney is one thing people can do to help the swifts.

"There's no fire hazard from the nests," she said. "They're too small."

Look out for swifts

While chimney swifts aren't as numerous as they once were in New Brunswick, bird watchers will have a chance to see them in the coming weeks.

This is the only time of year that the birds flock together "in a tornado-like fashion and roost there for the night," Kouwenberg said, adding that for the rest of the season, they make smaller individual nests.

There are about 20 large chimney swifts roosts that researchers know of in New Brunswick, said Kouwenberg.

"The ones that are monitored through our program are in Bathurst, Paquetville, Sainte-Anne-de-Madawaska, Plaster Rock, Fredericton, Island View, Sussex, Hampton and Riverside-Albert," she said.

In Kings County, the chimneys on the old Hampton courthouse, and the Hampton post office, are are the roosting spots for between 50 and 179 chimney swifts, said Kouwenberg.

The chimneys at the Hampton courthouse are a perfect roost for swifts, according to Maritimes SwiftWatch co-ordinator Amy-Lee Kouwenberg. Birdwatchers will head there Wednesday night to see for themselves.

Today, Wednesday, Maritimes SwiftWatch and the Hampton Nature Club are holding Swift Night Out at 7 p.m. Kouwenberg will facilitate a talk about the birds, then lead the group down to the courthouse to see the flock.

Similar events are planned for Riverside-Albert on May 30 at the Riverside-Albert Rec Centre, and Plaster Rock on June 1 from at the Plaster Rock Public School Library.

Also, if people see chimney swifts or have them in their chimney, they can contact SwiftWatch.

"It's a really interesting phenomenon," Kouwenberg said. "And it's something that might be right in people's backyards that they might not even know about."

With files from Information Morning Saint John