See a flock of swifts? Here’s Why A Group Of Ornithologists Are Trying To Count Them All


At dusk in September, Winifred Wake often sits in a lawn chair in London, Ontario, watching hundreds of birds circle the chimneys.

It includes Chimney Swifts, tiny endangered 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, hundreds of people will spend nights together in old, unlined brick fireplaces.”

Wake is a member of Nature London, a group of 50 volunteers who work to monitor and protect birds and other species.

The chimney swift is of great interest because its populations have declined by more than 90% since 1970, according to Birds Canada, which put them on the federal list of species at risk.

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/CBC)

Nature London, which is affiliated with Ontario Nature and Nature Canada, monitors 18 chimneys in the city, monitoring swift populations from year to year.

“They continue to decline and it’s important that we protect the birds,” Wake said.

“They are very dependent on the goodwill of humans to preserve some of these chimneys so that they have habitat to nest or rest for the night and roost.

“We don’t have as much or no old-growth forest with hollow trees for them to nest or roost in, so that habitat is gone.”

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

Hub for the defense of chimney sweeps

Earlier this week, volunteers counted more than 300 swifts in a warehouse sporting chimneys in south London, while another 300 were counted near the city centre. The numbers change daily as new birds arrive and others continue to migrate.

Two women are sitting on garden chairs looking at an old fireplace with binoculars
Wake, left, and another Nature London volunteer count chimney swifts. (Submitted by David Wake)

London has gained a reputation as a hub of knowledge and advocacy for chimney sweeps.

Over the past two weeks, wildlife rescues from Quebec and Eastern Ontario have come to town to free orphaned Chimney Swifts with volunteers from Nature London.

Connie Black traveled to London from north of Kingston, Ontario to release seven orphaned Chimney Swifts into a group of roosting swifts. She runs a home-based bird rescue, Destined to Fly, which focuses on species at risk.

“You’ve got a terrific group out there actually watching all the roosts — which is what we need to know,” Black said.

London won the official bird friendly city ​​status last year by Nature Canada, based on reducing threats, protecting natural habitats and community education.

Wake and his group are part of these efforts.

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

Disrupted food chain

Glenn Berry, a volunteer with Nature London’s Chimney Swift team, knows there’s still a lot to be done to protect the insect-eating birds.

Three baby chimney swifts sit in a fabric-lined basket
Some of the orphaned baby Chimney Swifts cared for by Connie Black of Destined to Fly bird rescue, located about 30 km north of Kingston, Ontario. (Submitted by Connie Black)

“We now have an insect-hostile world,” he said. “We’ve been at war with insects for some time, but it’s also a food source that’s part of the food chain that’s been disrupted.”

Wake agrees.

“Insect populations have dropped, and that’s considered one of the main reasons they’re declining,” she said. “People need to be aware that we have a responsibility to take care of the rest of the creatures in the world.”

Planting more native plant species, protecting natural areas and reducing roadside mowing would help, she said.

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

  • WATCH | Chimney Swifts congregate in London, Ontario.


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