Residents to Decatur Schools: Protected birds living in Winnona Park’s chimney
By Adelaide Taylor, contributor
“Dad, look, the birds are here!”
Maeve Downey, a fifth grader at the 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue, and her dad Aiden Downey, an educator and longtime Decatur resident, stepped outside their gate in the twilight to film and watch the birds — small, cigar-shaped Chimney Swifts — circle and then dive into their nesting spots for the night. They’ve watched the birds for years.
“Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Chimney Swifts, because they’re a beautiful sight,” said Downey.
During their spring and summer nesting season in Georgia, a group of migratory birds known to eat 1,000 insects a day seeks shelter in the unused chimney at Winnona Park Elementary School, right across the street from the Downey home. But one day, Downey noticed scaffolding being built up around the chimney.
“I just watched it go higher and higher, until finally I went over and asked the workers what was going on, and they said they were taking the chimney down,” said Downey.
Downey contacted City Schools of Decatur officials, warning them about the birds and their habitat inside the chimney.
“I even emailed the superintendent,” Downey said.
But he was frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of responses until he informed CSD officials that the birds were protected under federal law, specifically the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBTA makes it illegal to damage or remove the nesting sites of migratory birds without a federal permit. Chimney Swifts are one such species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
CSD Executive Director of Operations Noel Maloof said that construction will not continue until the birds have been addressed.
“I plan to investigate the type of birds nesting and any special status they may have,” Maloof said. “This will guide our next steps, and no work will be done until we have a plan to address the birds nesting in the chimney.”
Downey is thankful that the birds are protected for now, but is worried for them in future years. Chimney Swifts are known to migrate between the same spots year after year. They fly miles to the US in the spring every year, according to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, coming from winter habitats in the upper Amazon Basin, including in Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil.
But there are feasible solutions for building the birds a new habitat if the chimney comes down completely, he said.
“What you can do is beside the old chimney, you can build like a tube, out of wood, and the birds will just go up and down it. So if you have to remove the chimney, replace the habitat,” he said. “Because the birds are going to come back, and if there’s no habitat…”
A project similar to what Downey envisions was recently completed in Piedmont Park by the Atlanta Audubon Society, a well-established organization in the birding and environmental community. The tower stands 24 feet tall and is surrounded by native plants meant to create a Chimney Swift friendly habitat. They’re calling it “Georgia’s first Chimney Swift tower,” as detailed on their blog.
The Atlanta Audubon Society worked with two designers for the tower, including the Decatur based Pierre Coiron from Stability Engineering.
The “tower” projects have become more common as chimneys became less available to the birds “as chimneys are capped or removed”, according to the North Carolina Audubon Society’s 2016 report, which estimates the population has dropped 53 percent between 1966 and 2007. The birds originally nested in hollowed out trees, until those became harder and harder to find. Other sources, such as the Birds of North America site by the Cornell Ornithology Lab, attribute to the bird’s declining numbers to lack of food and other currently unidentified factors.
Either way, Downey believes the Chimney Swifts at Winnona Park provide a great learning opportunity for the students and the community.
“Forget expeditionary learning. These are expeditionary birds,” Downey said. “When rebuilding the habitat, we could install a camera and let the kids watch.”
Downey is an educator, who previously worked for Emory University and founded a school based on “democratic learning,” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is currently writing a book on teachers at an inner city high school and works in Ethnography, the study of a place and how the people in it work. Downey has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.
“There’s this thing I’m about, called fidelity of learning, it’s that an institution should be turning this into an inquiry,” Downey said. “Everything in a school should be focused towards learning. Everyone in the school should be focused on learning, even the people who take care of the school. These chimney swifts are an amazing opportunity to study them and understand them.”
Downey said he and others would be excited and willing to help the school find a way to balance the issue of the birds needing a habitat and the chimney needing to come down.
“Let’s put the kids, let’s put the community on it. That’s the kind of approach I’m always about,” he said. “And people across the board, from 3rd graders to high schoolers to adults all working together, that’s where people learn. How do we balance needing to get the chimney down, with the birds? That’s a great problem for learning.”
Downey notes the school system proudly grows a garden at Winnona Park along with maintaining a protected pond and keeping a Certified Wildlife Habitat sign in front of the school.
“Let’s live up to our reputation and keep these birds safe,” he said. “They can’t protect themselves from us.”