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Students build a new home for chimney swifts

Students with the University of Minnesota, Morris partnered with the West Central Research and Outreach Center to build a new habitat for chimney swifts, a native bird that has been displaced since the old elementary school building was torn down last year. (Kim Ukura/Sun Tribune)

MORRIS – On Monday, April 21, students and faculty from the University of Minnesota, Morris and staff with the West Central Research and Outreach Center gathered in the Children’s Garden to dedicate the chimney swift tower, which will provide a new home for these native birds.

Chimney swifts are small, migratory, insect-eating birds that are native to this area, explained associate professor Margaret Kuchenreuther at the dedication.

They spend summers in the eastern half of the United States and spend winters in the upper Amazon basin in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.

“They have very long, pointed wings and a narrow body – they were described by one of the most famous birders in North America, Roger Tory Peterson, as ‘flying cigars,’” said Kuchenreuther

Morris’ population of chimney swifts used to live in the old elementary school building. Heather Wayne, assistant professor of biology at UMM, said she used to watch the chimney swifts dive in and out of the building from her home nearby.

With the building’s demolition, the local chimney swifts were left without a habitat. Nationally, the chimney swift population is also suffering, dropping over 50 percent over the last 40 years.  

“Habitat loss is responsible for, we think, the pretty dramatic decline in chimney swift populations,” said  Kuchenreuther. “It’s also possible that pesticides are taking out a lot of the insects that chimney swifts eat.”

In response to the loss of the school habitat, the UMM Biology Club started fundraising efforts to help build a chimney swift tower. This tower will provide a place for the chimney swifts to live when they are in the area and a place for one pair to build a nest and reproduce.

The tower in the Children’s Garden was built by staff with UMM’s Facilities Management department.

Chimney swift towers have a rough interior surface because chimney swifts cling to the sides of the structure rather than perching. They also attach their nests to the sides of the structure using glue-like saliva.

Because only one pair of chimney swifts will nest per tower, the students hope that other community members will build chimney swift towers in the area, said April Dennison, Biology Club co-president.

“We had a good colony here, but the population has dropped,” said Dennison. “It’s meaningful to have structures for chimney swifts. It’s good in the Children’s Garden because kids can learn about local animals.”