As chimney swifts continue to lose habitat, Newport Elementary in Newport and Hillside Elementary in Cottage Grove are helping to save the species.
According to Audubon Minnesota Society member Ron Windingstad, 188 chimney swift birds flew inside of the Oltman Middle Schools chimney on a recent night. Windingstad stood there below the chimney with his binoculars counting one by one.
Most people might have assumed they were bats, but Ron Windingstad, of Audubon Minnesota, knew better. The tiny creatures swooping into Cottage Grove chimneys at dusk were chimney swifts, tiny 5-inch birds on the verge of endangerment.
Windingstad knows the swifts well, as he directs Audubon Minnesota's efforts to increase their habitats -- chimneys or chimney-like towers -- in the Twin Cities.
Chimney swifts only nest in chimneys, he said, and their populations have been rapidly declining because of loss in habitat. The Audubon Society estimates that the population of swifts has dropped by 50 percent in the past 40 years.
Two elementary schools in South Washington County are the latest to join Windingstad's effort to save the birds, which some people call "flying cigars."
Newport Elementary in Newport and Hillside Elementary in Cottage Grove added towers to their renovation plans to draw the birds, after the chimneys they had been living in fell victim to summertime renovations.
The Audubon Society worked with builders Kraus-Anderson and the school district to build new habitats for the birds at Newport and Hillside, and are looking at three more locations: Pullman Elementary in St. Paul Park and Pine Hill Elementary and Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove.
Windingstad, coordinator of Minnesota's Audubon at Home program, first attempted to convince the schools to keep the chimneys and maintain the swifts' current habitat. But John Doth, director of facilities for the South Washington County Schools, said the chimneys were too old, and required expensive maintenance.
They decided instead to shorten and cap the chimneys, and use the money intended for removing the chimneys to pay for the new towers.
Like most people, Terry Thompson, project coordinator for Kraus-Anderson, had never heard of the birds. "We hated to be taking away their homes, and didn't even realize that we were," he said.
The company donated the labor, about 40 to 50 hours per tower, he said.
The district is looking at incorporating chimney swift towers into the plans for two more renovations next year, Doth said.
Because only one pair of swifts mate per chimney, most swifts are not reproducing each season, Windingstad said.
Science teachers in the district are looking for ways to incorporate the swifts and lessons about conservation into their curriculum, he said.
Windingstad said that when the swifts who were disrupted by the renovations fly back to Minnesota next spring, they will nest in the new towers. He hopes to build 40 towers around the metro by the end of this year.
"It's a species I like working on, because we as people are working together and can do something about it," Windingstad said. "We can't do a whole lot to help species that require huge expansive rainforests or something like that, but these swifts only require an 18 inch by 18 inch, 12 feet worth of habitat."
Emma L. Carew • 612-673-4154