Do you see a flock of swifts? Here’s Why A Group Of Birdwatchers Are Trying To Count Them All | TBEN News


At dusk in September, Winifred Wake can often be found sitting on a lawn chair in London, Ontario, watching hundreds of birds circle chimneys.

She counts chimney swifts, endangered little black birds that pass through southwestern Ontario on their fall migration to Central and South America.

“I think they’re a fascinating part of nature,” she said. “This time of year will spend hundreds of nights together in old unlined brick chimneys.”

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Wake is a member of Nature London, a group of 50 volunteers dedicated to monitoring and protecting birds and other species.

The chimney swift is of great concern, as their populations have declined by more than 90 percent since 1970, according to Birds Canada, putting them on the federal list of the Species at Risk Act.

Winifred Wake stands outside a warehouse, one of 18 chimneys where she and other Nature London volunteers count and monitor chimney swifts at dusk. (Michelle Both/TBEN)

Nature London, which is affiliated with Ontario Nature and Nature Canada, monitors 18 chimneys in the city and keeps track of rapid populations from year to year.

“They continue to deteriorate and it’s important that we protect birds,” Wake says.

“They are very dependent on people’s goodwill to preserve some of these chimneys so that they have a habitat to nest in or to rest for the night and a place to sleep.

“We don’t have as many or no old hollow trees where they could nest or sleep, so that habitat is gone.”

Each bird also eats about 1,000 insects a day, but with a declining insect population, habitat loss and extreme weather, their food source is diminishing.

Quick Chimney Advocacy Hub

Earlier this week, volunteers counted more than 300 swifts in a chimney stack in south London, while another 300 were counted near the center. The numbers change from day to day as new birds arrive and others continue to migrate.

Two women sit in garden chairs and look at an old chimney with binoculars
Wake, left, and another Nature London volunteer count chimney swifts. (Submitted by David Wake)

London has built a reputation as a hub for rapid knowledge and advocacy.

Over the past two weeks, animals from Quebec and eastern Ontario have come to the city to release orphaned chimney swifts with volunteers from Nature London.

Connie Black drove to London from northern Kingston, Ontario, to release seven orphaned chimney swifts into a group of resting swifts. She runs a home bird sanctuary, Destined to Fly, which focuses on endangered species.

“You’ve got a great group there monitoring all the sleeping places — what we need to know,” Black said.

London officially deserved bird friendly City status last year by Nature Canada, based on threat reduction, natural habitat protection and community education.

Wake and her group are part of those efforts.

“London has probably become the center of rapid monitoring activity for Ontario,” Wake said.

Disrupted food chain

Glenn Berry, a volunteer with Nature London’s chimney sweep team, knows more needs to be done to protect the birds, which feed on insects.

Three baby chimney swifts sit in a fabric-lined basket
Some of the orphaned chimney swifts were cared for by Connie Black of Destined to Fly Bird Rescue, about 20 miles north of Kingston, Ont. (Submitted by Connie Black)

“We now have a world hostile to insects,” he said. “We’ve been at war with insects for a while, but that’s also a food source that’s part of the food chain that’s been disrupted.”

Wake agrees.

“Insect populations have plummeted, and that’s considered a major reason why they’re declining,” she said. “People need to be aware that we are responsible for looking after the rest of the world’s beings.”

Planting more native plant species, protecting wildlife areas and mowing less along the way would help, she said.

“Anything people can do to reduce your carbon footprint to help the planet and help swifts is all good.”

  • VIEW | Chimney swifts gather in London, Ont.