It’s a beautiful Friday night in Frogtown. On a vacant lot at the corner of Dale Street and Lafond, members of the local motorcycle club laugh and holler greetings, as fellow bikers roar up. Two police cars speed by, sirens blaring. Dogs bark. And toward the back of the lot, near a brightly painted wooden tower, a small, determined woman tries to communicate with some birds flying by.
“This is my homemade rig for calling chimney swifts,” explains Susan Willis, a birder by avocation. She hoists a 20-foot pole with a megaphone at the end of it alongside the wooden tower and presses the button on a CD player that’s wired to the megaphone. A series of high, squeaking calls and rapid-fire knocking sounds ensue. And up in the cloudless twilight sky, a pair of small, boomerang-shaped birds swoop nearer, in a breathtaking arc. They chitter back, as if responding to the recorded calls. Willis beams.
These chattering aerialists are chimney swifts, once a common sight in cities and towns throughout Minnesota, but now much more rarely seen. Swifts once nested in hollow trees and holes. As forests were logged, swifts moved on to cities, where they made use of the chimneys for which they are named. Now that many household chimneys have been capped to prevent rainwater leakage and damage, swift nesting options have dwindled, as have the numbers of the birds themselves. By one estimate, swift populations in America are down more than 65%.
The alarming decline in chimney swifts, (along with so many other bird species) has led groups to build special towers designed specifically to serve as substitute chimneys. The tower at Dale and Lafond was built in 2021, by Frogtown Green. Towers host both nesting pairs and roosts for large numbers of non-nesting swifts. A popular tower can offer a spectacular natural show; during migration, thousands of swifts may funnel around a chimney or tower at dusk, pouring inside to spend the night.
Bird lovers like Willis serve as ornithological real estate agents, patiently alerting migrating swift pairs to these likely new homes. The process is slow and requires commitment, a tower with plenty of space around it, and the recorded calls that summon house-hunting pairs. There’s no guarantee that it will work right away.
“I’ve been trying to locate the swift towers in the Twin Cities and to see if I can attract migrating birds to them for three years,” Willis explains. She’s aware of several church steeples and school chimneys where swifts hang out and is thrilled that more people seem to be interested in the fate of chimney swifts. Interest is warranted, since swifts spend almost their entire lives in flight, like sharks of the air, gobbling up mosquitos, gnats and other flying insects as they swoop and dive. One swift can consume up to 12,000 insects per day!
Willis’ devotion compels her to contact homeowners when she sees that they are renovating their chimneys, to offer advice on how to make the renovation more swift-friendly. “It’s so neat that you can just look up and see these amazing birds right here with us in the city – and to know that they have flown here all the way from the Amazon, where they spend their winters,” she says. “I feel like providing a summer home for them is a magnanimous thing to do, to help a species survive. And it’s something I can do right here in my home town.”
Frogtown Green is a volunteer-powered initiative to build green beauty in the Frogtown neighborhood. We plant trees, cultivate gardens and work toward a healthier environment. If you’d like to know more, our website is frogtowngreen.com and our phone is 651-757-5970.
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