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Group wants to save Ann Arbor chimney to protect birds

September 24, 2018

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — With their fast and erratic flight, they’re sometimes mistaken for bats as they dance about the sky at dusk.

But the large flock of winged creatures circling the old chimney at 415 W. Washington St. in Ann Arbor this time of year, catching countless insects, are actually migratory birds known as chimney swifts.

The Ann Arbor News reports that as city officials consider demolishing the blighted city-owned buildings across from the YMCA to make way for a potential redevelopment of the 2.5-acre site, a group of conservationists is urging the city to save the chimney as a freestanding structure to protect the birds.

Cathy Theisen, a local veterinarian and conservation chair for the Washtenaw Audubon Society, said the nearly century-old chimney is a favorite migration roosting spot for the chimney swift, a bird species that’s been declining in numbers and is listed as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources “Red List.”

According to the Audubon Society, about 1,400 of the birds were counted at the chimney on Aug. 19.

That was the highest population of swifts anywhere in the city during the group’s annual counting campaign called Swift Nights Out.

The number of swifts returning to the chimney on any given night can vary significantly as they may move around to other locations, or if, for instance, they’re scared off by a hawk, Theisen said.

As a neotropical migrant, the swifts, which come up from South America in the spring and stay until fall, are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

While that means it’s illegal to harass, remove or in any way disturb a nesting pair, Theisen said, that doesn’t mean the chimney couldn’t be demolished when the swifts aren’t here.

The Washtenaw Audubon Society is now calling on community members to reach out to their City Council representatives and the mayor to voice support for saving the chimney.

That’s something city officials say they’re willing to consider. They have no definitive plans for the site just yet, though the general thinking is part of it will become part of the future Treeline urban trail, along with possibly a small park, while part of it may be privately redeveloped, potentially including new apartments or condos, or possibly an arts space or community space of some kind.

The city’s administration on Aug. 27 submitted an application seeking Historic District Commission approval to demolish the vacant buildings, which are in the Old West Side historic district and were once used by the Washtenaw County Road Commission and later for various city operations. The HDC is expected to consider the request soon.

City Administrator Howard Lazarus said the city is seeking HDC concurrence on delisting the run-down structures in terms of historic protections, while keeping the property in the historic district.

He said that would facilitate demolition of the buildings in the future, but there is no current schedule to do so.

Lazarus said the city has an obligation to prevent the structures from becoming a nuisance or hazard, so some funding may have to be allocated for that purpose in the short term.

While the city has been informally approached by multiple developers interested in the property and the city is considering putting out an official request for proposals, Lazarus said there are no actionable plans for redeveloping the site at this time. Some developers have expressed interest in rehabbing the current structures, which the city has determined would cost several million dollars.

Incorporation of the chimney into a future development, along with accommodations for the Treeline trail, may be components of a request for development proposals at a later date, Lazarus said, indicating he’s interested in getting more community input.

Theisen said her group is willing to do whatever it takes to save the chimney and has about $5,000 right now to donate toward the effort, with the possibility of much more if needed.

Having swifts in the area is beneficial, she said, because they each eat about a third of their body weight daily, feeding all day long on mosquitoes, wasps, flies, winged ants and termites.

Unlike bats, which are also great at insect control, she said, chimney swifts carry no known disease, so their presence is not likely to be controversial or objectionable to neighbors.

Theisen cites statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, indicating chimney swift numbers have fallen 72 percent in the last 50 years and continue to decline at a rate of 2.5 percent annually.

She said they historically roosted in hollow trees, but heavy logging pressure in the early 1900s resulted in population decline. Chimney swifts have since adapted to an urban lifestyle, colonizing chimneys as a substitute for trees, but as old chimneys are torn down and others are capped, it has further limited options for chimney swifts.

Theisen said the chimney swifts are physically adapted with claws and a bristled tail for life on a roughened vertical surface and unable to perch like an average songbird, so they are now dependent on human-made structures for survival.

In addition to habitat loss and stronger and more frequent storms that can disrupt migration and ability to find food, widespread pesticide use is cited by conservation groups as another reason for the chimney swift’s decline in population, as the birds rely on insects to survive.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, there were about 7.8 million chimney swifts as of earlier this year. They travel between South America and the eastern U.S. and into Canada.

Theisen said the chimney swifts typically arrive in Ann Arbor in April from South America and they return to historic roosting sites here, huddling together en masse for warmth on chilly spring nights.

She said they break into monogamous breeding pairs for the season, spreading out over the city and suburbs, with one nesting pair per chimney. She said a few pairs may nest in a large chimney such as the one at 415 W. Washington, along with assorted non-breeding juvenile birds or unpaired adults.

In about two months from nesting, she said, the chicks are flying and feeding themselves. She said family groups of parents and newly fledged chicks will start to gather in large chimneys in preparation for migration, and the natural spectacle of hundreds of swifts spiraling into a chimney can be best observed from mid-August through October, after which the swifts migrate back to South America.

The Audubon Society encourages homeowners to visit chimneyswifts.org for information on how to best prepare a home chimney for a nesting pair.

Theisen said her group is hoping to collaborate with local government, community groups, nonprofits and businesses to save the chimney at 415 W. Washington even if the site around it is redeveloped.

“We envision the chimney as a family-friendly natural history site, perhaps with educational signage and a few benches for observing the incredible spectacle when hundreds of swifts form a ‘tornado’ as they spiral into the chimney at dusk,” she wrote to city officials.

“Other communities have found exciting ways to rally around and celebrate their swift neighbors, and we wish to do the same!”

She said her group stands ready to educate, raise funds and collaborate with national organizations.

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Information from: The Ann Arbor News, http://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor

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