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

'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

· Chimney swifts need brick and mortar type chimneys with rough interiors to cling to

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.

  • Chimney Swifts.org

  • Chimney swift tower plans

  • Have a tower? Register it!

  • Science & Art

    We are helping to design, and install numerous 'functional sculptures' throughout key locations in Bloomington, Indiana. Construction begins in October 2015 on our first 4 towers (WonderLab's WonderGarden, Sherwood Oaks's Farm, and Harmony School). Pictures coming soon!
  • Read the IU Press release on the WonderLab swift tower. This project is ~ 85% complete as of November 2015. Now, we just need to install and connect the camera to the indoor kiosk and complete the accompanying interpretive materials and artwork.

  • We are also involved in Outreach programs that teach science through the lens of art.
    These programs include art-science classes at:
  • Harmony School

  • Wonderlab's WonderCamp

  • 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. Dr. Ellen Keterson
    7. Strawberry Plains Audubon Center (HTML)
    8. Ken Saiki Design Landscape Architects (for a project in Wisconsin!) (HTML)

    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

    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