The City of Allentown, working with the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the National Audubon Society and the Friends of the Allentown Parks, is adding a vertical accent to Muhlenberg Lake’s Sparkle Island. But the tower being constructed is a high-rise for birds, and has long-term environmental benefits.
The idea of a Chimney Swift Tower for a public park in Allentown was first conceived by Scott Burnet, Habitat Committee Chairman for the Audubon Society’s local group. “I had constructed one on the side of my garage, as a means of providing roosting shelter en masse for the birds,” he said. “In reality, it’s the equivalent of the old Purple Martin houses, only for Chimney Swifts.”
Burnet had borrowed a book from Peter Saenger, Curator of the Acopian Ornithology Center at Muhlenberg College and President of the local Audubon Chapter, entitled ‘Chimney Swift Towers: New Habitat for America’s Mysterious Birds,’ by Paul and Georgeanna Kyle. In it, he learned of the details for fabricating the bird chimney without an adjoining house.
The concept is simple: Chimney Swifts, a sleek, sooty-grey bird with elongated body, have adapted to clinging to the insides of large, hollowed-out trees, and in North America’s urban areas, in chimneys during the summer. They don’t conflict with a chimney’s traditional use, since they migrate each fall to western South America for the winter season. However, man’s recent practice of capping chimneys with squirrel guards, or closing them in favor of other home-heating methods has greatly reduced their habitat.
“The tower mimics a chimney; it is about 20-feet tall and two by two feet in dimension,” noted John Mikowychok, Director of the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “Our volunteers are building it to be very effective – it drafts at the bottom, for air circulation. It has insulation panels to prevent the chimney from getting too hot in late spring, which could threaten the eggs or young chicks. And, it will have concrete siding, weather-proof capping, and cedar corners to protect it from the elements. Hopefully, it will become occupied next spring, and the colony could grow to several hundred birds.”
Volunteers began construction of the tower in Allentown on National Public Lands Day, September 28. The Friends of Allentown Parks and students from nearby colleges provided labor to also plant dozens of native trees, shrubs and grasses on the island. Area business provided materials free or near cost. The tower should be completed by the end of October.
The project is seen as desirable by bird enthusiasts and offers substantive environmental benefits. According to Mikowychok, “With the recent decline of an estimated 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s bat population due to white-nosed fungus, the ecology of Pennsylvania’s wetlands and ponds is changing, albeit slightly. A bat will eat thousands of insects, including mosquitos, each summer evening. With the collapse of Pennsylvania’s bat population, mosquito populations are likely on the rise. Since a large flock of Chimney Swifts provides a similar mosquito control as bats, creating habitat for them provides another solution to controlling mosquitos, particularly near still-water ponds like Muhlenberg Lake.”
Mayor Ed Pawlowski lauded the groups’ efforts. “This is a prime example of the synergy between environmental groups, park users and Friends, and our parks and recreation staff in using new technologies and creative ideas to solve environmental problems.”