17 October 2009

Chimney Swift Nesting Towers the Focus for an Expanding Research Project

A research project to understand the use of nesting towers by the Chimney Swift has recently expanded from Connecticut to a nationwide extent with the intent to assist the Chimney Swift, which are declining in numbers across their entire range.

The decline may be caused by a loss of nesting habitat, as chimneys are being capped to prevent access, or removed as older buildings are demolished. Newly constructed buildings do not always include chimneys, so few new breeding places are being developed.

"A potential solution is to provide additional suitable nesting sites through the proliferation of chimney swift towers," said Tanner Steeves, a graduate assistant at the University of Connecticut, and a member of the University of Connecticut Ornithology Research Group. Steeves helped to develop a new design for constructing nesting towers for the swifts, and is a project manager for a project to document swifts breeding in towers constructed for their use.

The "Chimney Swift Project" will document the location of existing swift towers, and track their yearly occupancy. The project was originally started by Margaret Rubega, a professor at the University of Connecticut, as well as the State Ornithologist.

A request for assistance from swift enthusiast's in North America was recently posted in different online bird forums. Tracking of swift tower locations originally started in Connecticut, Steeves said. The researchers wanted to increase their "sample size for adequate scientific scrutiny," so they asked other birders and conservationists for information about any towers they were aware of.

"We hope to evaluate the importance of tower design and placement for the conservation of swifts," said the message from Steeves, and Margaret Rubega, also involved with the project. "We are asking anyone who knows of an existing tower, or who intends to build one, to provide the tower location (GPS coordinates welcome, but not necessary), along with the tower owner or manager's contact information."

Towers have been constructed for use by the Chimney Swift (Chateura pelagica) for many decades, according to scattered details in the ornithological literature.

The Chimney Swift Project intends to evaluate the value of different structures currently in use and to figure how newly built nesting sites are beneficial.

"We are interested in creating a new swift tower design that would be inexpensive, affordable, lightweight, easily constructed, and moveable," Steeves said. "We feel that these characteristics will increase the likelihood of their construction by local birding groups, and perhaps their effectiveness - if the initial placement of a tower resulted in no occupancy, it can be relocated."

Towers built using the new design have been built and installed at Storrs, Connecticut, and the performance of this design is still in the process of being evaluated.

"We are still in the process of refining this design. As we heard of more towers throughout Connecticut and the Northeast, we began to consider the efficacy of these towers more seriously. It turns out that the installation of a swift tower does not guarantee it to be occupied by nesting swifts. There has been no continent-wide assessment of swift towers, so we decided to start reaching out to see if we could get a basic idea of how many towers were out there, where they are, and if they are being occupied by swifts.

"The allocation of conservation dollars is an important consideration for most organizations, so it is important to know how well they work," Steeves said, noting two important questions: "Do Swift towers help stabilize declining populations?," and "What is the pattern of occupancy of swift towers?

Answering these questions might help conservation efforts for the species, he said.

The database of swift nesting towers, will "eventually be available for public viewing, hopefully in some sort of web-based manner," said Steeves.

Public education and outreach are other opportunities for the project. Activities of the swifts could be viewed through web-cams, or autumnal gatherings could provide bird watching opportunities.

Contributions from swift enthusiasts "are greatly appreciated and will help future conservation efforts" for the swifts, he added. The monitoring can help with better understanding the distribution and occurrence of the birds.

This project has been funded by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CTDEP), and the University of Connecticut's Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, and is being completed in partnership with Shannon Kearney of the CTDEP Wildlife Division.

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