When you look along the Silver Bay skyline, you might notice something different. The William Kelley High School chimney was torn down the first week of May.
The chimney had become a safety hazard for the students and staff, but its demolition also meant an eviction notice to the estimated 250 chimney swifts that had called the tower home.
A partnership among the school, the city and Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, as well as a grant from the Minnesota Ornithologists Union, has ensured the birds will have other options available.
A swift discovery
In 2017, as repairs were made to the roof of the William Kelley, a large flock of chimney swifts were discovered roosting in the chimney of the school. Plans to demolish the structure were put on hold while local bird enthusiasts such as Peg Robertson organized to study the issue. Robertson organized a "swift sit" last summer to attempt to count the number of birds that called WKHS home. Her best estimate is 250 birds during migration times.
"They form these really large roosts during migration and then generally leave those roosts, those big chimneys or whatever they're using, and go to different places to nest," Robertson said. "They migrate all the way to Peru, so they've got a long way to go and need that space to gather, rest and feed."
Once upon a time, Robertson explained, the birds would use large hollow trees to act as roosting places, but as the Industrial Revolution forever changed the landscape and reduced the number of large trees available to roost, the birds adapted and began congregating in chimneys.
"Most people don't even realize that they're there, inside their defunct chimneys," Robertson said. "They're almost always in the air, busy eating mosquitoes and other insects. They really only notice them if they hear the babies crying from the nests."
Due to the trends of capping the tops and lining the insides of chimneys, swifts have fewer places to gather and roost. According to the National Chimney Swift Conservation Association, the total population of the unusual bird has dropped by as much as 65 percent, which is why Robertson hoped to protect the chimney at WKHS.
Too unsafe to maintain, other options open up
According to WKHS Principal Joe Nicklay, the 60-foot chimney was beyond repair.
"We had several contractors say that it's a liability," Nicklay said. "It would have cost far too much to repair it just for the chimney swifts, so we had to take it down. The more the contractors got into it, the more damage they found."
Kraus-Anderson Construction deconstructed the chimney over the course of 10 days. The chimney could have endangered students or staff if it had toppled on its own.
Robertson said she understood the decision and moved to ensure the swifts had other options open to them for roosting. She worked with partners at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center to write a grant for materials to build two 12-foot tall wooden nesting towers for the displaced swifts. One was constructed at Wolf Ridge next to the organic farm. The other was constructed by students in Chris Belanger's wood shop class at WKHS and placed on the grounds of the school the same week the chimney came down.
"A tower does not provide a large roosting structure for birds like the chimney but will provide a home for nesting pairs of swifts," Robertson said.
Nicklay said the school has started incorporating education about the swifts into various classes and that this might be the first of a couple of towers constructed by the school.
"We had a presentation to our third graders from some people with the chimney swift group," Nicklay said. "We're also hoping to put a small iPod in there with a speaker. It will make chirping sounds and this attracts the swifts in there. We're also hoping to put a webcam in there so we can see observe them."
As for a secondary roosting home, Robertson has been in touch with the city of Silver Bay to see about opening up the chimney at the Mary MacDonald Center. Currently, the chimney has a tree and other vegetation growing in it, but Robertson said Kraus-Anderson was willing to help clean it out. If there's enough interest in the swifts in the long term, Robertson said she'd like to see a large brick roosting structure built to replace the chimney. These structures cost an estimated $40,000-$50,000 to build.
In the meantime, Robertson has also been attempting to get information about the swifts out in the public in the hopes of more people opening up their chimneys to the birds.
"We can't guarantee that the birds will respond," Robertson said. "But we're doing what we can for the birds."