Ontario SwiftWatch: Engaging Communities in Urban Bird Conservation

Chimney Swifts are a little bird in big trouble. Sometimes described as a “cigar with wings,” these small, fast-flying, swallow-like birds spend much of their time twittering in flight as they feed on insects over cities and rural areas (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Chimney Swift in flight. Photo credit: Zak Pohlen, courtesy of Ontario Nature.

Figure 1. Chimney Swift in flight. Photo credit: Zak Pohlen, courtesy of Ontario Nature.

Historically, Chimney Swifts roosted and nested in large, hollow trees. As Europeans settled in North America, these natural habitats became scarce as mature and old-growth forests were cleared. Chimney Swifts adapted to these changes on the landscape and began to use chimneys for nesting and roosting. Chimney Swifts, though, are once again facing complex challenges. The Canadian population has declined by 95% since 1970, with the Ontario population declining by nearly 8% per year over the last 40 years (see Figure 2). Chimney Swift habitat is now being lost as buildings are modernized and chimneys are capped, lined, or torn down. Other factors, such as severe weather events and changes in insect abundance, are likely also affecting swifts.

Figure 2. Breeding Bird Survey trend analysis, 1970 to 2012, for Ontario. (Courtesy, Environment and Climate Change Canada 2014, with thanks to the hundreds of skilled volunteers who participate in the Breeding Bird Survey.)

Figure 2. Breeding Bird Survey trend analysis, 1970 to 2012, for Ontario. (Courtesy, Environment and Climate Change Canada 2014, with thanks to the hundreds of skilled volunteers who participate in the Breeding Bird Survey.)

To help, Nature London (formerly McIlwraith Field Naturalists) initiated a local Citizen Science monitoring and conservation program called “SwiftWatch” in 2004. In 2008, Bird Studies Canada (BSC) partnered with Nature London to conduct a scientific assessment of their Chimney Swift monitoring protocol and make recommendations for the survey design. In response to interest from other naturalist groups in urban areas across Ontario, BSC launched Ontario SwiftWatch in 2010 to coordinate province-wide monitoring efforts. The project’s key objectives are: to monitor population dynamics; to fill knowledge gaps related to priority Chimney Swift areas; and, to address threats to Chimney Swifts and their habitats. These objectives are met by engaging communities and volunteers in monitoring and stewardship activities in several provinces.

Since the launch of SwiftWatch, over 350 volunteers have collected data on Chimney Swifts and their habitat in 110 communities at 850 nest and/or roost chimneys across Ontario and have identified an additional 3,500 potential chimneys. Data from Ontario SwiftWatch and related BSC Chimney Swift research have been used to produce scientific publications and several reports on Chimney Swift monitoring techniques. These data have been crucial to the development of educational resources and species at risk planning and stewardship efforts in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada.

How to help?

  • Monitor Swifts: Volunteer monitors are needed in Ontario, Manitoba and the Maritimes.  Visit Bird Studies Canada’s Swifts and Swallow pages to learn more and to find out how you can help.
  • Look for and report existing roosts and nesting chimneys. Identifying all the nesting and roosting chimneys in Ontario is an ongoing task that requires your help. If you find a chimney used by swifts please submit a report to SwiftWatch.
  • Learn how to be a good swift host by visiting: Be a Good Swift “Host
  • It’s not too late to participate! We are still hoping to find new Chimney Swift chimneys in 2016 – or you can sign up to help in 2017. Email us: ontarioswiftwatch@birdscanada.org

Article contributed by Gregor Beck, Bird Studies Canada

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