When the Wake Audubon Society teamed up with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh to build a brick chimney, it's fair to say that it was not your typical type. Specifically, there was no fireplace — or any other form of combustion that needed venting out. The "chimney" is, in fact, specifically designed as a nesting and roosting site for chimney swifts.

Disappearing habitat
Chimney swifts, which have seen their numbers drop in half in the U.S. since the 1960s, and by nearly 90 percent in Canada, have been having a harder and harder time finding suitable nesting habitat. The old, hollow trees they used to use have been disappearing as development encroaches on forest land, and as more intensive management practices thin out old dead trees from existing forests.

An adaptable species
chimney swiftAs a result, chimney swifts had adapted to nesting inside masonry chimneys. Yet now they find this habitat under threat too, as builders of new houses either eschew a chimney, or they use modern fixtures like metal liners to either improve safety or increase efficiency of fireplaces and wood stoves.

That's why chimney swift advocates have been creating artificial habitats, like the nesting tower in Raleigh, and bird advocates have even created a national registry of dedicated swift nesting towers to help map where proactive steps are being taken to protect this much-loved bird.

Chimney swifts in your chimney?
But you don't have to build a dedicated swift tower to help save swifts. In fact, many of us who live in older homes with traditional masonry chimneys just need to keep an eye (and an ear) out for these fascinating birds. While homeowners may worry about birds nesting in their chimneys, the birds actually do very little damage and will rarely inhabit the space during the heating season — meaning there's little chance of conflict between you wanting a toasty fire and your resident swifts being able to care for their young.

ChimneySwifts.org has a great article on being a good swift landlord, including an important reminder: Even if you do want your swifts gone, you may not be allowed to remove them. Chimney swifts are protected by federal law, and you should ask your chimney cleaning company about its bird policy. If they offer "bird removal" services, they may be flouting the law and should be avoided.

One last reminder for why we should all care about chimney swifts: They are voracious airborne foragers, gobbling up thousands of mosquitoes, flies and other insects and helping to keep pest populations in check. So while that "chimney" in Raleigh may not be functional in the classic sense of the word, it is very far from useless.

Interested in getting more involved? Here's how to build your very own swift tower for around $600.

Photo: Wikipedia