RADFORD — A band of chimney swifts will soon set off on their long flight home to the New River Valley — 3,000 to 4,000 miles from their winter quarters in Central or South America — feeding on the wing, dodging skyscrapers, towers and hawks.
At night the birds will seek shelter in hollow trees or chimneys, and if none are available, they’ll overnight clinging to the sides of walls or cliffs. The swifts’ long wings and short feet are adapted for flight, but prevent them from perching on branches.
When the exhausted avians finally arrive in Radford — which some reliably will, says Radford bird lover Wilson Rankin, because swifts have nesting fidelity — their chimney home at McHarg Elementary School will be gone. It was demolished in August during the renovation of Radford’s oldest school.
But if Rankin and his Radford cohorts prevail, this will not be a sad story. They are planning to have a new home waiting for the returning swifts.
By April 1 — the swifts’ historical homecoming date — Rankin, a retired telephone company worker, and his wife, Radford University education professor and Radford School Board member Liz Altieri, as well as RU biologist Bob Sheehy, longtime birder Clyde Kessler, Radford City School Superintendent Robert Graham and architect Jack Murphy, expect to have erected a chimney-shaped brick tower behind McHarg School.
Altieri and Rankin are spearheading a $15,000 fundraising campaign to finance the construction of the 18-foot tower atop the school’s “Sledding Hill.” They have vowed to match the first $3,000 in contributions, and are close to doing so. The tower will be outfitted with a nonintrusive web cam so that Radford schoolchildren and Radford University students can study the swifts’ behavior and life cycle.
“Chimney swifts are a ‘near-threatened’ species here and ‘threatened’ in Canada,” Rankin said. “The loss of nesting sites in traditional chimneys has hurt them; that, and the decline of the insect population.”
Old factories and older schools with huge chimneys like McHarg’s are being torn down, and most new houses don’t have suitable chimneys. Homeowners who do have chimneys are capping them or lining them with metal for fire safety. The swifts, who return to their natal nesting area year after year, are left without protective homes.
The loss of chimney swifts is a loss to the community. A swift dines on up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies and other insects a day during nesting season. But the attraction for many people, including Rankin and Altieri, is the beauty of the swifts’ swooping flight and their murmuring chitter.
The sight of these acrobatic birds swirling into funnels over the area’s largest chimneys at sunset is becoming increasingly less frequent. Rankin still remembers when he became aware of them, at the McHarg School some 30 years ago.
“When I used to walk my daughter to the playground in the evenings, I enjoyed watching the swifts swooping around the chimney as it got dark. The McHarg chimney was probably the tallest in Radford. Hundreds of swifts were there at that time,” he said.
Clyde Kessler, a widely respected birder, lives near the school and has been keeping detailed records on the McHarg swifts since the early 1980s. The chimney swift numbers there peaked at 209 birds on the evening of Aug. 29, 2011, but have declined.
“I should have done some early morning counts there during the fall migration season, August to early October,” Kessler said. “At early morning counts in Blacksburg, I sometimes recorded 500 to 1,000 swifts flying out of a chimney. There are few places in this part of the U.S. for the swifts to rest over during their long fall migration to South America.”
Although not many swift towers exist in Virginia, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has installed 150 such towers around Pittsburgh, and Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency provides the public with construction plans for artificial swift chimneys.
Graham, the city school superintendent, has been a supporter of the project since his first meeting with Rankin. He envisions elementary school students studying the science of the birds’ life cycle, migration patterns and the technology used to monitor them, as part of a STEM initiative.
“Chimney swifts have a history at McHarg, and I am hopeful that it will continue with the new tower. I am excited about the many educational opportunities this resource and these birds will provide to our community,” Graham said.
Radford citizens also will likely find pleasure in sitting beneath the tower, watching the swifts dive in and out. Biology professor Bob Sheehy, who has installed web cams to observe swifts at Radford University’s Reed Hall, is guiding the camera placement in the McHarg tower to best observe the swifts as they zoom down the tower cavity and care for their nestlings. Swifts use their glue-like saliva to build crescent-shaped twig nests on the interior wall. The planning group hopes to sponsor an annual “Swifts Night Out” event to educate the public about chimney swifts.
The swift tower was designed by Jack Murphy and his team at Thompson & Litton Architects, the group that also designed McHarg’s renovations. The team embraced the idea, researching the swifts’ requirements for chimney size, orientation and surrounding landscape.
“This tower of recycled brick will last at least 100 years,” Rankin said. “Wooden towers are cheaper to build, but maintenance is their downfall. We don’t want the school to have to maintain or fund this tower; it will be 100 percent donor funded.”
Donations can be made by check (“for Chimney Swift Tower”) to Radford City Schools Partners for Excellence Foundation, P.O. Box 355, Radford, Virginia 24143. Donors may also contribute through the foundation’s PayPal link. Contributions can be made in honor or memory of a loved one.