Cities provide essential habitat

Chimney swifts by Greg Schechter

Last summer I spent most Thursday evenings sitting in the construction wasteland outside city hall watching a chimney across the street. The weather was always fair and people would look at me strangely but seldom asked what I was doing. I was watching for chimney swifts.

They are one of the aerial insectivores indicated as being in serious decline by the State of Canada’s Birds report released last month. In 2009 Bird Studies Canada launched Ontario SwiftWatch to try to understand what is happening to this particular species. I volunteered.

The notion of endangered species usually brings to mind polar bears in the Arctic of maybe rainforest frogs in a tropical jungle. The notion of city wildlife usually brings to mind nuisance species like raccoons and pigeons. We seldom think of highrises or decrepit downtown buildings as prime real estate for at-risk species.

As it happens, swifts like to roost and nest in old chimneys. Around sunset they end their day of chasing insects and return to roost. By monitoring these chosen sites volunteers can determine how many birds are using a given chimney and whether there is any breeding activity. This information is essential if we are to protect this unusual creature from vanishing altogether.

Similarly, peregrine falcons like nesting on cliffs where they can take advantage of their exceptional flight speed to capture prey, such as pigeons. A peregrine sees a bank tower as any other cliff beside a canyon, and with plenty of pigeons available. City nest sites have played a key role in recovery of this endangered species since DDT nearly wiped it out in the 1970s. Volunteers have assisted captive breeding and release programs, and monitored fledgling peregrines to help them survive their first perilous flights.

We do not need to look far to find creatures in trouble. We do not have to travel far to lend a hand. For millions of people, it is walking distance.

Chimney swift photo courtesy of Greg Schechter on Flickr.

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