Swifts · in · the · City

Project Synopsis

Swifts in the City is a conservation project focused on chimney swifts - a "near-threatened" bird species. Chimney swifts are pretty amazing and entertaining critters whose populations appear to be declining quite drastically (i.e., IUCN “near threatened” in the US, COSEWIC “federally threatened” in Canada).

*This project is sponsored by the Sassafras Audubon Society.

Updates: As of December 2016, we have completed 5 Chimney Towers in Bloomington, IN. We have also partnered with Stori Snyder at the Brown County Public Library in Nashville, IN to help with their very own Chimney Swift tower! Our partners, Ken Sekai landscape architects in Madison, WI just completed 3 towers on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Click on the arrows below for a slide show of tower construction and fun 'Swift facts'

'Swifts in the City' has two main goals:

  1. Increase breeding habitat for chimney swifts
  2. Raise awareness of the plight of the chimney swift through outreach and education efforts.

Why Chimney Swifts ?

Chimney Swifts (Chaetura palegica) appear as silhouettes dancing through the sky, chattering away, and eating insects from dawn until dusk. Large colonies form tornado-like funnels as they descend into chimneys at dusk and are often mistaken for bats.

These large colonies appear most often during peak migrations; migrating individuals share roosting habitat during the long journey to South America. The large size of these colonies is misleading, however, because Chimney Swift populations have been declining sharply since the ~1960s (i.e., IUCN “near threatened” in the US, COSEWIC “federally threatened” in Canada). While the causes of these declines are manifold, loss of breeding habitat (e.g., hollow trees, un-capped masonry chimneys) is the primary culprit behind these declines.
Historically, chimney swifts preferred hollow trees as nesting and roosting sites. However, as European expansion replaced forests with towns this resilient species adapted by using chimneys. More recently, however, the increased use of chimney-caps and fabricated chimneys has made finding suitable habitat challenging. This gregarious species roosts (i.e., rests and sleeps) communally.

However, only one pair breeds at each site (as a territorial species they require ≥ 10 ft. in between nesting sites).

Therefore, increased breeding habitat is essential to reducing two of the primary threats facing small populations: 1) loss of genetic diversity (i.e., from inbreeding) and 2) falling below their “minimum viable population size”; below this threshold, recovery becomes increasingly difficult. Luckily, this species responds remarkably well to “Swift-towers” and modified chimney-caps making conservation efforts relatively straightforward and promising.

Swift Facts

· Chimney swifts migrate ~ 10,000 migration miles every year

· Chimney swifts eat 1,000s of insects every day. Hence, supporting swifts in your area means free pest control (not to mention the entertainment)....we should be very careful with the use of pesticides since these tiny birds are likely extremely sensitive to eating insects coated in chemicals. Additionally, just like humans, birds do best on a diverse diet. We can help ensure that these (and other birds) have high quality food by planting native plants that support a diverse array of high protein insects (e.g., native beetles).

· Chimney swifts need brick and mortar type chimneys with rough interiors to cling to. A slick, 'non-gripy' chimney could leave a swift doomed. If you have a metal or prefabricated chimney, make sure to cap it to prevent any accidents.

· Planting native plants can help Chimney swifts. In addition to loss of habitat, chimney swifts must deal with food sources that are contaminated in chemicals. For birds that eat so many insects each day, these pollutants can add up fast and quickly take their tole on the swift population. Organic gardening can help. Surprisingly, so can using Native Plants which support a more diverse array of native insects relative to non-native plants. These plants also tend to need less water and fewer chemical treatment

Helpful Resources

Here is a list of great resources to help you build your own tower, modify your chimney, or just learn more about these amazing birds. Important note** When building your tower, make sure to space them about 10' apart. Chimney swifts are very territorial when it comes to breeding.... or maybe they just like a bit of privacy?

  • Chimney Swifts.org

  • Chimney swift tower plans.

  • Example of our interpretive signs designed by David Orr at Blue Aster Studio

  • Have a tower? Register it!

  • Sassafras Audubon Society

    Sassafras Audubon Society (SAS) has taken on this project as one of their focal conservation programs. SAS previously helped protect a large chimney swift colony at Fariveiw Elementary by working with other community partners to construct a free standing chimney just for swifts! Read more:
  • (HTML)

  • (PDF)
  • Our community partners on this project include:

    1. WonderLab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology (HTML)
    2. Stonebelt (HTML)
    3. Joe LaMantia, community artist (HTML)
    4. The Bloomington Department of Parks and Recreation
    5. The Eagle Scouts and Harmony School
    6. David Orr Graphic Artist at Blue Aster Studio (HTML)
    7. Dr. Ellen Keterson at Indiana University
    8. Strawberry Plains Audubon Center (HTML)
    9. Ken Saiki Design Landscape Architects (for a project in Wisconsin!) (HTML)
    10. Jackson Moore at Classic Restoration and Construction
    11. Dr. Jianamei Wu at Indiana University, who taught an entire design class centered around chimney swifts

    Swifts in the City is supported through generous contributions from:

    1. The Elinor Ostrom Fellowship program
    2. Members of the Sassafras Audubon Society
    3. Atomic Electric, Bloomington, IN
    4. The Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association (BUEA Arts Grant)

    Want to get Involved?

    We have several long-term goals with the project. These include:

    (1) Building more swift towers

    (2) Gathering more detailed data on breeding and hatching success at multiple sites across multiple geographic locations. These data are essential to developing more predictive models that will be essential to management strategies. In order to accomplish this goal, we need technologically savvy partners.

    You can help by collecting and submitting detailed observations of counts of chimney swifts (or nestling survival if you have nest cameras) using sites to sites such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird are a great place to contribute your data. eBird

    If you would like to donate to or volunteer with the Swifts in the City project or for more information on other, ongoing projects with Sassafras Audubon Socity please visit
    Sassafras Audubon Society