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Swift Action

September 11, 2009
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From a bit in Audubon Magazine.

Urban wildlife, to many of is, seems like a classic oxymoron.  After all, the sprawl of exurban development tends to sweep away any vestiges of nature that can be found.  Here in North Carolina, the metro area that I live in is cheekily referred to as “Sprawleigh- Durham” for good reason.  Years without a rigidly enforced long term zoning plan have left the city a maze of exurbs where, as Mad Magazine famously said, they cut down the trees and name the streets after them. Birds, no doubt, get hit pretty hard by this sort of stuff, though some manage to make it work for them.  But it’s always kind of nice to see the ways by which they accommodate

Chimney Swifts’ long history of coexisting with humans is evident right in their common name.  Prior to European expansion in North America, the birds roosted in hollow trees but took quickly to brick chimneys in human settlements.  For a while, the population was doing as well or better than it ever had before development, but these days, with the capping of what few chimneys remain, the Chimney Swift is once again on the decline.  A true shame for a bird who’s apparent natural insect population control is of utmost use on a late summer evening.

So it’s kind of neat to see Swift’s natural predilection put to good use by people.  And the city of Houston has such an opportunity ahead of it with the recent discovery of a huge convergence of migrating Chimney Swifts at an abandoned Imperial Sugar factory site slated to become one of those mixed use developments cities are falling over themselves to build these days.  Apparently, the swifts, a full 10,000 or so of them, have taken to an exhaust stack on a building known as the char house.  The Houston Audubon Society has requested that the stack and the building be preserved, and thus far, the development company has promised to preserve the building, though no word on the ultimate determination of the stack itself.

I hope they do the right thing, not only for the welfare of a declining North American bird, not only because it’s s signal to the community that the developers are certainly looking to do something different, but because it could be an local attraction, driving business and consumers to the new development and giving a signal that making a small, I hesitate to call it a concession because it’s not, perhaps a recognition of nature in urban environments can have a positive impact on the bottom line in addition to the birds themselves.  There’s certainly a precedent for this sort of thing.  Austin, Texas, is justifiably proud of its Congress Bridge bat colony and the folks of Portland, Oregon, turn out on late summer evenings to watch the Vaux’s Swifts come in to roost at an old school.   Both occurrences are popular, lucrative and great sources of civic pride.  The people of Houston have an incredibly unique opportunity here.  Let’s hope they do the right thing with it.

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3 Comments
  1. September 11, 2009 9:50 am

    I hope that they developers keep the stacks in place. It would be a shame to lose such an important migration site.

  2. September 11, 2009 10:30 am

    Having lived in Austin and Portland, I can attest to the huge value of having public wildlife spectacles like this to connect people with nature. Very cool!

  3. Nate permalink*
    September 11, 2009 11:44 am

    I agree with both of you, I hope the developers realize what they have and make a move to preserve the stack as they develop the surrounding area. The birds are there a relatively short time, it seems as though it would not be much to work around them.

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