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Kent Plans to Build a Chimney That's Literally For the Birds

rendering of chimney swift tower
Metis Construction Services
This rendering shows what the proposed chimney swift tower will look like when built on Haymaker Parkway. The tower will provide a shelter for the birds that have lost many of their nesting places.

Kent residents should expect more permanent neighbors this spring or summer: chimney swifts.

While the birds are not new to the city, a designated shelter for them will be, since Kent’s city council approved a chimney-swift tower to be built sometime in the summer.

The sanctuary will be located on the Hike and Bike Trail on Haymaker Parkway, in between Kent State’s campus and the police station.

The tower will be built like a traditional brick chimney, since the swifts need vertical places to nest. Chimney swifts have small feet and legs, which makes it hard for them to move on the ground, so brick chimneys are the bird’s preferred nesting place, said Rhonda Boyd, the city of Kent’s senior engineer.

According to Columbus Audubon, chimney swifts spend most of their time in the air. They feast on small insects and spiders and are closely related to hummingbirds because of their wing structure and movement.

However, there has been a decline in the population of chimney swifts because of the destruction of their habitats. With modern housing excluding the open flues the traditional brick chimneys had (most modern chimneys are chapped) and the loss of hollow trees, housing is even more limited for the swifts.

Because of the habitat loss, city council applied for two grants to complete the sanctuary project, including one for $1,000 from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and one for another $1,000 from the Kent Environmental Council. The city will also use funds that were allocated for the construction of the police building since the shelter will be located on its property, said Gwen Rosenberg, a Kent city councilperson at large.

The Department of Natural Resources is trying to encourage communities to provide housing for the swifts, Rosenberg said.

The decision comes with the upcoming demolition of Kent’s old police station on the corner of state Route 59 and Water Street.

“There is a colony of migratory swifts that lived in the chimney of the police station,” Boyd said. “We're having less and less habitat available for the swifts.”

Kent’s chimney swift history

At Kent State, biology professor Dr. Ralph W. Dexter conducted extensive research on the swift, starting in 1944.

Dr. Ralph W. Dexter releases a chimney swift from the top of a building at Kent State. Dexter was a nationally recognized researcher for his work on the birds.

According to a Kent Stater article written in 1961, Dexter was a nationally recognized authority for his work regarding swifts. The same year, he reported there were “17 pairs of chimney swifts nesting in the air shafts of Kent, Merrill, and Franklin Halls, and the Administration Building.”

Dexter’s research found chimney swifts reside in Kent from early April to the fall. When the temperature begins to drop, the swifts migrate to South America.

The research was recognized so widely the university included the swift at the top of its official seal, Rosenburg said.

Kent Stater Archives
In this Daily Kent Stater article from 1979, the chimney swift is shown at the top of the seal.

“We're calling it Kent's original mascot before the black squirrel because it's been on the seal since the sixties,” Boyd said.

Kent’s future with the swift shelter

With the extensive history and the presence of the birds in Kent, the city is hoping the shelter will not only provide a nesting place for the swifts, but will also give the public a way to learn more about their chimney-residing neighbors, Rosenberg said.

“These birds don't exist everywhere,” he said. “This is something that could draw some visitors in a non-disruptive way for the birds.”

As a way of making the structure more community based and collaborative with the public, the city commissioned a ceramic artist to create swift-themed tiles for the structure.

“[Rhonda Boyd] said, why not make a cool sculpture and art garden, make it a focal point?” said Emily Ulm, the artist commissioned. “She asked me to make some swift tiles that actually have pictures of the swifts on them.”

Emily Ulm
Artist Emily Ulm shows a ceramic mold she will use to create the chimney swift tiles that are part of the structure's design.

There will be a few big tiles with the pictures of the swifts, as well as small tiles, which will depict different pollinators and things of that nature, Ulm said.

In the long run, the city hopes to attract both chimney swifts and swift-interested visitors, Boyd said.

“We're hoping that if we can get a large enough community of [visitors], we can hold events like a swift night out, and we can have a naturalist come and talk about the habitat,” Boyd said. “We can make events to celebrate wildlife at that site.”

The city also hopes to bring attention to the importance of the sanctuary.

“Creating an intentional place brings awareness to the situation,” said Renee Ruchotzke, the president of the Kent Environmental Council. “Any awareness that we can bring to our citizens about creating and protecting environments for wildlife is important.”

Bella Hagey is a journalism student at Kent State University. She'll be a member of the Collaborative News Lab @Kent State this summer.