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Birders celebrate, as Raleigh food hall preserves a roost for chimney swifts

One sign of the coming fall in North Carolina is the swirl of thousands of small birds that circle large chimneys or smokestacks each evening before dropping down inside to roost for the night.

The mesmerizing pre-migration ritual of the chimney swift is becoming rarer as the bird’s population continues a long decline that began in the 1960s. While it’s not clear how much of that can be blamed on a lack of roosting places, few modern buildings have big chimneys or smokestacks, and people who are concerned about the birds try to preserve as many of the existing ones as possible.

Which is why John Connors of Wake Audubon approached the owners of the Transfer Co. Food Hall on the east side of downtown Raleigh. The food hall, which opened earlier this year at 500 E. Davie St., was built in 1926 as the garage for the Carolina Coach Company, where buses were stored and repaired, and has a square brick chimney on the south end overlooking what is now a patio with outdoor tables.

Swifts have been roosting in the unused chimney for at least a decade, likely longer, said Ben Graham, spokesman for Audubon North Carolina. The owners of the food hall — Jason Queen, Matt Flynn and Fred Belledin — had planned to remove the chimney, until Connors explained how important it is for the birds. To help make his case, he met the men at the building one evening as the swifts whirled overhead and dove inside.

The owners have also let Connors and members of an ecology class at William Peace University play recordings of chimney swift song from the patio to help attract the birds, Graham said.

“It is plenty loud for the birds,” he wrote in an email. “Folks on the sidewalk have been noticing it, enough so that John gets questions from passersby about the project.”

To show its appreciation, Audubon helped organize a recognition ceremony at the food hall set for Sunday evening, just before the swifts settle in for the night.

“We can do our part to help swifts by keeping existing chimneys open,” Andrew Hutson, Audubon North Carolina’s executive director, said in a statement. “Property owners like Transfer Co. Food Hall are aiding these birds on their epic journeys south for the winter.”

Why these swifts roost in buildings

Chimney swifts arrive in the Triangle in the spring and pair up and build nests in small chimneys or abandoned buildings from April through July. Once their young have grown and can fend for themselves, the birds begin seeking out large chimneys where they pack in tightly at night, clinging to the inside walls. Each morning, they disperse to feed on insects to prepare for the long migration to South America for the winter.

Before there were chimneys, the birds sought out large hollow trees for their fall roosts. As Europeans settled the continent and those trees disappeared, the birds adapted to the smoke stacks that took their place.

Raleigh still has several chimneys that attract swifts in the fall, including in old schools, government warehouses and downtown office buildings. But each time a building is torn down or extensively renovated, another roosting spot disappears. Five years ago, Wake Audubon and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences built a 30-foot square brick roosting tower — a fake, free-standing chimney — at Prairie Ridge Ecostation in West Raleigh.

To celebrate the preservation of the Transfer Hall chimney, Wake Audubon and the food hall will hold a swift watch party at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. It will be preceded by family-friendly swift activities starting at 4 p.m. and a ceremony marking the occasion at 6.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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