The Chimney Swift tower is a collaboration between the Petoskey Regional Audubon Society (PRAS) and Harbor Springs Public Schools. This project is dedicated to the memory of Hank Pfeifer of Harbor Springs, a long-time PRAS member and expert birder.
The Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) is a small (5” long, 11” wingspan) gray/brown bird with a slender body and long, narrow, scythe-shaped wings. It is sometimes said to resemble a “flying cigar.” It breeds in eastern North America from Florida to southern Canada, arriving in northern Michigan in May and departing in September. It winters in the Amazon basin. It eats airborne insects which it captures “on the wing.”
Before European settlement, the Chimney Swift (then known as the American Swift) nested and roosted in large hollow trees. As farms and towns replaced old growth forests, the Swifts adapted entirely to nesting in brick and stone chimneys (their unusual foot shape allows them to cling to a chimney’s vertical shaft).
This new nesting/roosting habitat had advantages that allowed the Swifts to expand their range and numbers. However, in recent decades chimney design, construction, and use has evolved, and modern chimneys are mostly no longer available for nesting/roosting. As a result, their numbers have declined 72% since the 1960s.
Chimney swifts are active and dispersed during the day, but at dusk they congregate and spend the night in communal roosts. Locally, up to several hundred individuals were known to nest and roost in the chimney of the former J.C. Penney building in Petoskey. In fact, one of PRAS’ most popular birding field trips was to watch the Swifts swarm in a spinning vortex before dropping into that chimney for the night. Unfortunately, that chimney is no longer available to the Swifts. Chimney Swifts have been observed in the vicinity of Harbor Springs, but there are no known nesting/roosting locations.
In an effort to boost Chimney Swift numbers, there has been a nation-wide effort to construct artificial nesting/roosting structures like this, an effort spearheaded by the Chimney Swift Conservation Association. It should be noted that these artificial nesting/roosting structures have met with variable success. In some regions they are readily used, and seldom in others. None-the-less, providing such opportunity to this dwindling species is widely recommended.
PRAS, a local chapter of the Michigan Audubon Society since 1966, is dedicated to creating a greater awareness, appreciation, and understanding of the inter‑relatedness of all of Michigan’s wild places and wildlife and the need for stewardship, with emphasis on our local region. PRAS holds monthly meetings September through May (the second Tuesday of each month), hosts numerous birdwatching field trips locally throughout the year, and sponsors special birding projects such as this. For more information about PRAS please check out our website.