High Hopes

High Hopes

Two toymakers have literally written the book on building chimney swift nesting towers--vital to the declining  bird's survival--and turned their Texas property into a thriving Audubon sanctuary.

By Frank Graham Jr.
Published: July-August 2011

Texas A&M University has published the Kyles' two books about swifts, one a "how-to" focused on the towers. Through a cooperating entity, the Driftwood Wildlife Association's North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, other swift enthusiasts across the nation receive the necessary information for building "swift housing developments." Towers now occupy homesites, schools, state parks, and Audubon nature centers, such as the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Grateful builders send letters and photos of their towers to the Kyles. "I purchased your book and constructed a tower per your specifications, except I mounted it on old power poles," wrote veterinarian Jerry W. Davis of southern Illinois. Rich Merritt, Audubon New York's director of operations, says the group is using the Kyles' 12-foot wooden tower model. "I am pleased to report that we are installing three chimney swift towers in three state parks in New York City this month," Merritt wrote. "Next year we plan to install three more towers and will have towers in all five boroughs of the city." 

 

More myths or misunderstandings adhere to chimney swifts than to almost any other common bird. That's hardly surprising because, when they aren't hidden away in the murk of their dwellings, they are almost constantly high in the sky, feeding on insects, beyond close observation. One rarely sees swifts perched like swallows outside their nesting and roosting places, and when swifts are seen in flight, observers are likely to confuse them with swallows.

Chimney swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than to swallows. They are stubby black birds, about five inches long, with round heads and long, scythe-shaped wings. The speed with which their wings beat creates an optical illusion, suggesting to casual watchers that they flap alternately--an aerodynamic impossibility, as the Kyles point out.

When scores, perhaps hundreds, of swifts dive one after another into a tower during spring, an observer may conclude they form a breeding colony. Not so. No one has ever observed more than one nest at a site. The breeding pair generally chooses to build close to the tower's bottom third, while the other birds stacked above are non-breeders, unable to find nesting sites of their own. (Thus every tower the Kyles or their followers build gives two more swifts entry to the mating game.)

Another misunderstanding is that "swifts have weak feet." They can't stand, or walk on horizontal surfaces, true. Their feet are designed to cling, not perch. Nesting or roosting, they grip rough vertical surfaces, grasping as woodpeckers do on the trunks of trees, with the aid of their stiff tails. As Paul noted: "If you can hang on a wall by your toes all night, you don't have weak feet."

Ironically, the Kyles knew almost nothing about birds or plants when they were growing up in Houston, or for some time after they moved to the Austin area. "We came to visit friends here in 1972 and fell in love with the Texas Hill Country," Paul recalled. "There were three lots for sale for $1,000 each in this canyon, with $75 down. We only had $40, but  our friends loaned us the rest, and we made the move. When we started work together on the house on Sundays, we had an army shovel and a spade called a sharpshooter to dig holes for the piers." During the building, Paul worked as a carpenter and Georgean as a data processor. After six months they moved into their new home, with a tar-paper roof above them and a Coleman stove to heat water for meals and baths. Paul calls it "a house built by teenagers."

"We didn't really find the birds--they found us," Georgean recalled. "We had canyon wrens and woodpeckers, plus cave crickets and scorpions, coming in and out. The canyon below had only deer and cedar trees. We loved it."

Later they named their surroundings Chaetura (kay-too-rah) Canyon, after the scientific name for the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica). But for the moment, their property beyond the house was a vertical universe, underpinned by limestone and plunging steeply for about 150 feet along a wet-weather stream that eventually flows into the Colorado River. Vegetation was scarce, and deer ate up all the new native growth in the understory.

The Kyles began to find injured or orphaned wild animals, and learned from nearby experts how to care for them. Neighbors brought them injured birds and mammals, and the couple took them all in. People would cap or screen chimneys, then be left with chicks on their hands. Or they lit fires in fireplaces while swifts were still in the chimney. "Georgean would have 40, 50, 60 swifts she was feeding," Paul said. "When she fed them she would wash her hands and start all over again. She did that for 19 years."

Meanwhile, they wondered whether any of the birds they released actually survived, then returned to the area as nesters. That led them to band birds. "We recaptured swifts I had banded as babies, and that had migrated all the way to Peru, and come back right here to the canyon," Georgean said. "We recovered one swift that we'd banded nine years before."

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Frank Graham Jr.

Frank Graham Jr. is a field editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

amazing dedication and lives

amazing dedication and lives well spent. Inspirational to say the least.

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