At first, like other rehabilitators, the Kyles had little success working with swifts less than 10 days old. The birds simply died. They asked themselves if the problem might lie in the chicks’ diet. The Kyles found the key to young swifts’ survival in the parents’ saliva. Saliva is to swifts what silk is to spiders. As chimney swifts come into breeding condition, their saliva glands expand to produce gobs of glue-like saliva that holds together the tiny sticks they gather to make a nest and fix it to vertical walls in towers and chimneys.
“On a whim, we swabbed an older swift’s throat with tong-held mealworms,” Paul said. “Then we fed those mealworms to several chicks. The chicks began to survive.” They enlisted several biologists to help with a yearlong study funded by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and discovered that when swifts hatch, their mouths are sterile. In the course of routine feeding in the wild, the parents inoculate their chicks with beneficial flora. The chicks need the parents’ saliva to survive. “It was a major breakthrough,” Paul said. “We found we could do the same things with other species, but the process is species-specific. For example, we can inoculate a young canyon wren with saliva from an adult canyon wren, but not from an adult Bewick’s wren. Raptor rehabilitators have picked up on this, too.”
Somehow the Kyles found time to restore the canyon’s diversity and, as a few dollars became available from the toy shop, buy small surrounding lots to buffer their thriving sanctuary. Fences on most sides kept out the deer, allowing native plants to gain a foothold. Red oak, escarpment cherry, Texas ash, and native grasses came in. These plants attracted more birds, bringing seeds in their droppings and further increasing diversity. Walking with my hosts in the canyon, I heard the endangered golden-cheeked warbler in song and spotted a pair of rufous-crowned sparrows skulking in a hillside thicket.
In an ultimate expression of their dedication to birds, in 2006 the Kyles donated their home and eight acres at Chaetura Canyon (“Basically everything we own,” Paul said) to the Travis Audubon Society in Austin—the land after their deaths “to be preserved and maintained as a bird sanctuary in perpetuity.” The couple retains only lifetime tenancy on the property. Since the Kyles turned over their land, Travis Audubon has purchased two small plots (and is purchasing two others) buffering the sanctuary, which now lies in the heart of a residential development. The total value of the sanctuary, not including considerable improvements, is estimated at between $930,000 and $2.48 million.
The decision to turn over their home and property without a financial safety net for the future must have been momentous. I asked the Kyles how long they pondered their options. Georgean knitted her brows in mock puzzlement.
“Oh, about a second,” she replied. “Maybe less.”
“We have every confidence that Travis Audubon are the proper hands,” Paul added. “After all the effort and love we have put into preserving the property, selling it for development to deal with some late-life health issue and put off the inevitable for a few years just makes no sense.” The Kyles’ is the gift that keeps on giving, sustaining aloft those swirling flights of swifts at dusk over the towers of Chaetura Canyon.