Two toymakers have literally written the book on building chimney swift nesting towers--vital to the declining bird's survival--and turned their Texas property into a thriving Audubon sanctuary.
As dusk fell on Chaetura Canyon at the edge of the Texas Hill Country, I joined Paul and Georgean Kyle on the deck of their handcrafted hillside home. Sharp "chippering" calls filled the air while dozens of chimney swifts circled the two 22-foot towers that rose through the eaves five feet above the roof. I saw the swifts separate, one by one, from the swirl of birds and dive into one of the towers. And then I witnessed an amazing touch of visual wizardry. As each bird disappeared into the tower, it immediately reappeared on a big video screen set up before us on the deck, dropping through the dim light in the tower's interior to squeeze in among the other swifts already clinging to its walls.
"They're beautiful birds in flight," Paul said as we watched the two spectacles, one in our own world, the other filtered through a small camera the Kyles had fixed inside the tower's opening. "When you spot a mating pair flying in synchrony, each matching the other's movement, it's like seeing two figure skaters glide across the ice."
Or like watching the Kyles themselves at work. They wed when barely out of high school, Georgean at 19 and Paul still 18, prompting him to quip later, "I married an older woman." They managed their lives in rare lockstep to fashion remarkable triumphs in both avian biology and wildlife conservation.
Since the 1970s the Kyles have earned a living by tooling and marketing wooden toys six days a week in their charming little shop, Rootin' Ridge Toymakers, in nearby Austin. Meanwhile, for 19 years, they operated a wildlife rehabilitation station at home, while shedding new light on the biology and behavior of chimney swifts. Spurred by declines in swift populations, the couple has put up 16 nesting and roosting towers on their property and a total of 70 or so in the Austin area. Their efforts have inspired the building of at least 179 similar swift housing developments across the United States and Canada.
"Paul and Georgean's achievements are amazing because they are self-taught and nothing has come easy for them," says Valarie Bristol, president of Travis Audubon. In 2006 the chapter and the Kyles created the 10-acre Travis Audubon Chaetura Canyon Bird Sanctuary on the couple's property 20 miles from downtown Austin. The Kyles act as stewards and hold events such as evening swift watches and tower-building workshops.
"A major reason for the decline of many species is loss of habitat," says Victor Emanuel, who runs an internationally known birding tour company out of Austin and knows the Kyles well. "The people who built and distributed nesting houses for bluebirds and purple martins (both dependent on human-supplied housing) were unsung conservation heroes. But the Kyles had a more complicated problem. Swifts don't need a house; they need towers. If the decline of chimney swifts can be reversed, Paul and Georgean will have played an important role in that species' survival."
Swift populations have dropped by more than half in the United States since the 1960s, and by a chilling 90 percent in Canada. Before European settlers began to move across the continent, the birds ranged westward to the Mississippi River, finding ample nesting and roosting sites in hollow trees. As the forests fell, they quickly adapted to stone and brick chimneys erected by humans on houses and factories. The birds also expanded their range with the settlers, reaching the Rocky Mountains. (No one knew where the species wintered until the 1940s, when natives in the Upper Amazon recovered some of their bands.)
After World War II many industrial chimneys disappeared, and homeowners unaccustomed to wildlife were inhospitable to birds in the their chimneys. "Swifts have adapted to manmade structures almost entirely," Paul told me. "If someone finds a pair nesting in the forest, they'll write a paper about it. But people are often upset by strange noises in their chimneys. They think it's a raccoon in there, or the sounds made by chicks may resemble those of a rattlesnake. Some report 'evil spirits.' And chimney-cleaning companies break the federal law by removing nesting migratory birds."
The Kyles resolved to build alternative structures to replace lost breeding habitat. They experimented over the years, providing swifts with towers safe from predators and overheating, with roughened inner walls to which adults or chicks can cling. Eight of the towers at Chaetura Canyon are made of wood, eight of concrete blocks. The three of these towers equipped with viewing ports and tiny cameras inform the couple's two decades of observations.