Chimney Swifts Return to Queen’s University

When you observe up at the top of Fleming Hall at Queen’s University, Kingston, you will find several artificial chimneys created to attract roosting Chimney Swifts. As part of a joint collaboration with Queen’s University faculty members and the Kingston Field Naturalists club, enthusiasts are attempting to attract the Chimney Swift back to Kingston.

Designated as an endangered bird species in Canada, Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica), or “les Martinet ramoneurs,” are dark-sooty birds that spend most of their time in the air. They are often mistaken for swallows or bats, and their small, compact bodies have made some call them “flying cigars.” Every year, swifts migrate thousands of kilometers from Canada to Amazon Basin to their wintering grounds. Since the late 1990s, about a hundred swifts return to Kingston each April to build nests and produce their offspring.

While reasons for their recent decline are for the most part unknown, scientists believe that a reduction in their prey – flying insects – might be a possible reason for their population declines. Chimney Swifts also face the added pressure of habitat loss resulting from the modernization of chimneys (capped, round, metal flues) that prohibits the swifts from entering potential nest sites.

In Kingston, naturalists have uncovered the importance of Fleming Hall as a roosting site for Chimney Swifts. In the 1920s to the 1950s, members of Queen’s University and the local naturalist group started banding the species to understand their migratory routes. The Fleming Hall chimney was built in 1904 but by 1927 became disused, providing an excellent spot for roosting swifts. Observers recorded up to 4,000 swifts at a time, and banded up to 2,000 birds per night. Their efforts revealed the vast distances of Chimney Swift migrations. Many birds were found in various parts of the United States but more importantly, a banded bird collected in Peru. Details of these findings were published in the Canadian Field Naturalist in 1952. By the late 1960s, the Chimney Swift population in Kingston began to decline, following similar trends across North America.

In December 2008, Chris Grooms, Coordinator of the Kingston Field Naturalist (KFN) Chimney Swift Project, coordinated his work with the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL), a group of about 30 research scientists, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, and other scientists dedicated to using paleolimnological and other techniques to provide historical perspectives to environmental change. Studies have included work on the Northern Fulmar, an Arctic seabird that has been associated as a vector for the transport of most of the human-made contaminants such as DDT to some arctic coastal ecosystems via their guano.

Grooms’ association with PEARL has allowed him to conceive the original Fleming Hall chimney as a record in itself, with over 60 years worth of data (Fleming Hall burned down in 1933 and was capped in 1993). By studying the guano at the bottom of the chimney, Grooms believes that he will be able to find remnants of the original banded birds, deposits of contaminants, and a record of insects. These materials could possibly provide a clue to reasons for the decline in Chimney Swift populations in the region. As Grooms has stated, the Fleming building chimney is a “treasure trove” of data that could reveal information on dwindling insect populations, habitat changes, and contaminants such as DDT.

The Chimney Swift Project with the Kingston Naturalist Club is looking for volunteers to help with their exciting initiative. Chris Grooms also hopes to build an international network of individuals pursuing similar projects in North America and South America. For contact information on the Chimney Swift Project, see: http://post.queensu.ca/~groomsc/ andhttp://post.queensu.ca/~pearl/bird%20biovectors.htm.

Historical Notes and Avian Historical Records in Canada

The decline in Chimney Swift populations is a recent phenomenon. In fact, few native birds of the Western Hemisphere have adapted their breeding ecologies to the emergence of European colonization as successfully as has the Chimney Swift. The first recognizable description of the swift in natural history literature appeared in John Josselyn’s New Englands Rarities Discovered (1672). The first known illustration of the swift appeared in Mark Catesby’s (1748) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, while Peter Kalm, who also travelled to Canada, noted the bird in his travel narratives. Scottish immigrant, Alexander Wilson, (1812) wrote the most comprehensive and biologically accurate narrative of the Chimney Swift in his monumental American Ornithology (1812).

Their vast travels remained a mystery to American and Canadian scientists until the mid-twentieth century. As federal ornithologist Percy A. Taverner exclaimed in Birds of Eastern Canada (1922): “The winter home of the Chimney Swift is unknown. The mystery, however, should not be exaggerated, as there are a numbers of Swifts in the western hemisphere looking like this one and the bird has probably been overlooked in its winter quarters or confused with its allied forms.”

When examining data from the Ontario Nest Record Scheme, numerous observers across the province have recorded their nesting behaviours. Famed wildlife artist Robert Bateman documented nesting swifts 6 June 1959 at Boshkung Lake, near Carnarvon in Haliburton County. In the Kingston area, psychiatrist and naturalist C.K. Clarke noted the birds in Portsmouth, Kingston, in July 1899. Clarke was known for his involvement with the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital.

Avian historical records can be found in many forms, including nest record cards, banding data, travel narratives, sound recordings, bird illustrations, photographs, and stuffed bird specimens. To find records on Chimney Swifts in Canada, research the collections databases of many of Canada’s leading natural history museums including the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Royal Ontario Museum, the New Brunswick Museum, the Provincial Museum of Alberta, the Royal British Columbia Museum, and the Nova Scotia Natural History Museum. Many of these museums house archives related to individuals associated with the study of birds in Canada. Early nineteenth-century and twentieth-century naturalist periodicals offer a wealth of information on early accounts of bird species in Canada. Sound recordings can be found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the British Museum Natural Sounds Archives (see the links in the Transnational Ecologies Audio Archive).

References:

  • Graves, Gary R. “Avian commensals in Colonial America: when did Chaetura pelagica become the chimney swift?” Archives of Natural History 31, 2 (2004): 300–307
  • Weir R. and Kingston Field Naturalists. 2008, Birds of the Kingston Region, 2nd ed. pp 235-236. Kingston Field Naturalists.

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Kirsten Greer is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Geography & History at Nipissing University. Her research focuses on human-environment relations in the past, particularly within the context of the 19th-c British Empire. She is also interested in historical and critical physical geography collaborations. Kirsten is a member of the Transnational Ecologies project with NiCHE.

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