New home for people, new home for threatened birds

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Artist’s drawing of the Chimney Swift habitat to be constructed at Old Grace Housing Co-operative.

The construction going on at the site of the original Grace Hospital will lead not only to the establishment of an environmentally sustainable, housing co-operative for people, but to the re-establishment of a nesting and roosting site for the Chimney Swift, a provincially and nationally designated threatened bird species that breeds in southern Manitoba.

The Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagic) is a small, swallow-like bird that spends summers in North America, before departing for South America—particularly Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia—in August. In Manitoba, Swifts nest in various southern urban centres, including Souris, Melita and Winnipeg, though they are also found as far north as The Pas.

Chimney Swifts spend much of their lives on the wing, eating up to 1,000 insects daily, caught in flight. Historically, these birds nested and roosted in hollow trees, but the clearing of old-growth forests throughout most of North America did away with much of their natural habitat. In response, Swifts adapted and began nesting in small masonry chimneys, and roosting communally in large chimneys and smokestacks. When Chimney Swifts are migrating, they often gather at dusk and enter chimneys as a group. You can watch a video of a September 2014 gathering of Chimney Swifts at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine School by clicking here.

Declining numbers and loss of habitat

Chimney Swift numbers have been declining in Canada for the past 50 years. In 2007, nesting Swift populations had declined to critically low numbers, prompting the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada to list the Chimney Swift as a threatened species. Among the factors leading to the decline are the reductions in swift-friendly chimneys, as older heating systems are replaced and existing chimneys are fitted with metal liners and capped.

The large chimney at the original Grace Hospital building was a well-used nesting spot for the Chimney Swift, with frequent sightings by Manitoba Wildlife and Fisheries Branch staff. When the Manitoba government decided to take down the building, the original plan was to leave the chimney in place. However, due to safety concerns, and in keeping with an exemption under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act, the chimney was removed in September 2014.

In 2015, a 12-metre tall wooden chimney was put in place to serve as a temporary habitat for Chimney Swifts. This chimney, which was decorated by the students of Laura Secord School, was relocated to a permanent home at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in 2016.

OGHC habitat

In an agreement with the Manitoba government, Old Grace Housing Co-operative committed to constructing a new Chimney Swift habitat on the co-op site. The habitat will be 12 metres tall, and constructed of concrete block, with a fibre cement lap siding blending with the rest of the building. It will be located on the north side of the courtyard next to the common area. Following construction, Wildlife and Fisheries Branch staff and volunteer observers with the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative will monitor the site for Chimney Swift activity.

The Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative  co-ordinates a provincial campaign to educate Manitobans about the Chimney Swift and further its protection.