RADFORD – For decades, a flock of chimney swifts has called the old chimney at McHarg Elementary School home during the spring and summer months.
Renovations at the school required the chimney to be demolished, and now a group of bird enthusiasts hopes to build a new chimney on site to provide a roost for the birds, and STEM education for the students at McHarg.
Chimney Swifts, a vulnerable species of migrating bird, are “a common and joyous summer sight in Radford, flying in synchronous formation in tight chittering groups,” reads the group’s proposal. “You can see and hear them all summer particularly near the East and West business districts where many old chimneys still exist. Chimney Swifts are beneficial to our city. Each bird eats up to 12,000 mosquitoes, termites, flies, and other insects a day.”
Wilson Rankin and his wife, Dr. Liz Altieri, are spearheading the effort, along with Clyde Kessler and Bob Sheehy.
“I lived near McHarg in the late 80’s and watched the swifts going in the chimney there many evenings,” said Rankin. “When the chimney came down last August with the school renovation I thought we might be able to get a tower up by the time the birds migrate back in the area, around April 1. Swifts are in near threatened status and big open chimneys are a thing of the past, so habitat is critical. Thanks to records kept by Clyde Kessler, we know what an important nesting site McHarg chimney has been over the years and we wanted the birds that return in April to have a new home.”
Radford City Schools Superintendent Robert Graham was on-board with the idea from the start, noting that students could also benefit from the chimney for STEM education. A camera will be installed in the chimney so students can observe.
“Rob Graham liked this plan from the first meeting and immediately saw the potential benefit to students at McHarg and other Radford Schools,” said Rankin. “Kids get their first STEM class in elementary school and this project has environmental, conservation and nature stewardship potential.”
Rankin says Sheehy, who is a biology professor at RU, will be an important part of the educational component.
“The RU Biology Dept wants to be involved with the educational opportunities and will supply expertise in webcams, counters, data collection and long range studies of McHarg chimney swift breeding and population trend,” said Rankin. “I was also initially a little freaked out about the cost, but Rob was very optimistic about the community liking the project and donating the necessary funds. He also was instrumental in getting Thompson and Litton Architects and Avis Construction, the contractors on the school project, to buy into the project. Thompson and Litton donated the drawing plans for the tower and have worked with Avis through all the planning. And it was really important that the tower blend with the school construction.”
The group is more than two-thirds to the funding goal of $15,000, but still needs some financial support from the community to bring it to fruition.
Donations can be made through the Radford City Schools Partners for Excellence Foundation by mailing a check to P.O. Box 355, Radford, Virginia 24143 (make note that donation is for Chimney Swift project).
Wilson said the tower could last a century.
“Because this swift tower is professionally designed and built, I like to say that, barring human disturbance, it could stand for 100 years,” said Rankin. “That means a lot of swifts and a lot of kids will benefit.”
“And the tower will be open and accessible to the public; it’ll be built on top of the sledding hill towards the rear of the property,” he added. “It’ll be a nice place to sit at the end of a summer day and watch the swifts circling and chittering in the sky, hopefully to go in the chimney just at dark. The City could have a “Swift Night Out”, particularly in the Fall when the birds migrate and sometimes hundreds will use chimneys along the way. Just having kids learn more about protecting Chimney Swifts and birds in general will be so important in the years to come.”