When the Atlanta Audubon Society teamed up with the Piedmont Park Conservancy to build a chimney tower, it's fair to say it wasn't your typical chimney. Specifically, there was no fireplace — or any other form of combustion that required venting. The "chimney" is, in fact, specifically designed as a nesting and roosting site for chimney swifts.
The "Exhibitat" is a 24-foot chimney swift tower located in Atlanta's largest park. It was unveiled on Sept. 25 during the state's inaugural Georgia Grows Native for Birds Month. But why build a looming tower in the heart of a metropolitan city?
"What we're hoping to accomplish is to show that this is a successful model that other parks can do this, and you don’t have to restore your whole park," Atlanta Audubon Society Executive Director Nikki Belmonte told MNN. "You can just do a small area like this, and it would benefit so many birds just in one small parcel of area."
While chimney swifts are widespread and common across the eastern United States, Belmonte says the population is decreasing due to habitat loss and pesticides.
"Those broad spectrum pesticides, they hurt more than just mosquitoes. It hurts all of the insects, and birds and other wildlife need insects to live. So, we're trying to prevent that kind of collapse," said Belmonte.
They are also having a 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.
As a result, chimney swifts have 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 use modern fixtures like metal liners to either improve safety or increase the efficiency of fireplaces and wood stoves.
That's why chimney swift advocates have been creating artificial habitats, like the nesting tower in Atlanta.
Atlanta Piedmont Park's new Exhibitat also features a native flower garden to help encourage chimney swifts migrating through the city to nest in the tower.
"With birds, it's crucial to have native plants because it provides the natural food they need to survive especially in an urban habitat where you have so many threats and invasive, exotic plants, exotic predators, there's all sorts of issues. If we can provide native plants, you're providing food and the support that they need."
In return, chimney swifts are extremely beneficial, especially in the South. They're voracious airborne foragers, gobbling up thousands of mosquitoes, flies and other insects and helping keep pest populations in check.
So, what do you do if you want to lure a flock of chimney swifts to your garden to devour as many bugs as possible?
You don't have to build a dedicated swift tower to help save swifts if you live in an older home with a traditional masonry chimney. You 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.
But what if you don't have a chimney? Watch the videos below on how to build your very own swift tower.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2015.