High Hopes

High Hopes

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.

By Frank Graham Jr.
Published: July-August 2011

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.

Texas A&M University has published the Kyles' two books about swifts, one a "how-to" focused on the towers. Through a cooperating entity, the Driftwood Wildlife Association's North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project, other swift enthusiasts across the nation receive the necessary information for building "swift housing developments." Towers now occupy homesites, schools, state parks, and Audubon nature centers, such as the Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi. Grateful builders send letters and photos of their towers to the Kyles. "I purchased your book and constructed a tower per your specifications, except I mounted it on old power poles," wrote veterinarian Jerry W. Davis of southern Illinois. Rich Merritt, Audubon New York's director of operations, says the group is using the Kyles' 12-foot wooden tower model. "I am pleased to report that we are installing three chimney swift towers in three state parks in New York City this month," Merritt wrote. "Next year we plan to install three more towers and will have towers in all five boroughs of the city." 

 

More myths or misunderstandings adhere to chimney swifts than to almost any other common bird. That's hardly surprising because, when they aren't hidden away in the murk of their dwellings, they are almost constantly high in the sky, feeding on insects, beyond close observation. One rarely sees swifts perched like swallows outside their nesting and roosting places, and when swifts are seen in flight, observers are likely to confuse them with swallows.

Chimney swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than to swallows. They are stubby black birds, about five inches long, with round heads and long, scythe-shaped wings. The speed with which their wings beat creates an optical illusion, suggesting to casual watchers that they flap alternately--an aerodynamic impossibility, as the Kyles point out.

When scores, perhaps hundreds, of swifts dive one after another into a tower during spring, an observer may conclude they form a breeding colony. Not so. No one has ever observed more than one nest at a site. The breeding pair generally chooses to build close to the tower's bottom third, while the other birds stacked above are non-breeders, unable to find nesting sites of their own. (Thus every tower the Kyles or their followers build gives two more swifts entry to the mating game.)

Another misunderstanding is that "swifts have weak feet." They can't stand, or walk on horizontal surfaces, true. Their feet are designed to cling, not perch. Nesting or roosting, they grip rough vertical surfaces, grasping as woodpeckers do on the trunks of trees, with the aid of their stiff tails. As Paul noted: "If you can hang on a wall by your toes all night, you don't have weak feet."

Ironically, the Kyles knew almost nothing about birds or plants when they were growing up in Houston, or for some time after they moved to the Austin area. "We came to visit friends here in 1972 and fell in love with the Texas Hill Country," Paul recalled. "There were three lots for sale for $1,000 each in this canyon, with $75 down. We only had $40, but  our friends loaned us the rest, and we made the move. When we started work together on the house on Sundays, we had an army shovel and a spade called a sharpshooter to dig holes for the piers." During the building, Paul worked as a carpenter and Georgean as a data processor. After six months they moved into their new home, with a tar-paper roof above them and a Coleman stove to heat water for meals and baths. Paul calls it "a house built by teenagers."

"We didn't really find the birds--they found us," Georgean recalled. "We had canyon wrens and woodpeckers, plus cave crickets and scorpions, coming in and out. The canyon below had only deer and cedar trees. We loved it."

Later they named their surroundings Chaetura (kay-too-rah) Canyon, after the scientific name for the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica). But for the moment, their property beyond the house was a vertical universe, underpinned by limestone and plunging steeply for about 150 feet along a wet-weather stream that eventually flows into the Colorado River. Vegetation was scarce, and deer ate up all the new native growth in the understory.

The Kyles began to find injured or orphaned wild animals, and learned from nearby experts how to care for them. Neighbors brought them injured birds and mammals, and the couple took them all in. People would cap or screen chimneys, then be left with chicks on their hands. Or they lit fires in fireplaces while swifts were still in the chimney. "Georgean would have 40, 50, 60 swifts she was feeding," Paul said. "When she fed them she would wash her hands and start all over again. She did that for 19 years."

Meanwhile, they wondered whether any of the birds they released actually survived, then returned to the area as nesters. That led them to band birds. "We recaptured swifts I had banded as babies, and that had migrated all the way to Peru, and come back right here to the canyon," Georgean said. "We recovered one swift that we'd banded nine years before."

At first, like other rehabilitators, the Kyles had little success working with swifts less than 10 days old. The birds simply died. They asked themselves if the problem might lie in the chicks' diet. The Kyles found the key to young swifts' survival in the parents' saliva. Saliva is to swifts what silk is to spiders. As chimney swifts come into breeding condition, their saliva glands expand to produce gobs of glue-like saliva that holds together the tiny sticks they gather to make a nest and fix it to vertical walls in towers and chimneys.

"On a whim, we swabbed an older swift's throat with tong-held mealworms," Paul said. "Then we fed those mealworms to several chicks. The chicks began to survive." They enlisted several biologists to help with a yearlong study funded by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and discovered that when swifts hatch, their mouths are sterile. In the course of routine feeding in the wild, the parents inoculate their chicks with beneficial flora. The chicks need the parents' saliva to survive. "It was a major breakthrough," Paul said. "We found we could do the same things with other species, but the process is species-specific. For example, we can inoculate a young canyon wren with saliva from an adult canyon wren, but not from an adult Bewick's wren. Raptor rehabilitators have picked up on this, too."

 

Somehow the Kyles found time to restore the canyon's diversity and, as a few dollars became available from the toy shop, buy small surrounding lots to buffer their thriving sanctuary. Fences on most sides kept out the deer, allowing native plants to gain a foothold. Red oak, escarpment cherry, Texas ash, and native grasses came in. These plants attracted more birds, bringing seeds in their droppings and further increasing diversity. Walking with my hosts in the canyon, I heard the endangered golden-cheeked warbler in song and spotted a pair of rufous-crowned sparrows skulking in a hillside thicket.

In an ultimate expression of their dedication to birds, in 2006 the Kyles donated their home and eight acres at Chaetura Canyon ("Basically everything we own," Paul said) to the Travis Audubon Society in Austin--the land after their deaths "to be preserved and maintained as a bird sanctuary in perpetuity." The couple retains only lifetime tenancy on the property. Since the Kyles turned over their land, Travis Audubon has purchased two small plots (and is purchasing two others) buffering the sanctuary, which now lies in the heart of a residential development. The total value of the sanctuary, not including considerable improvements, is estimated at between $930,000 and $2.48 million.

The decision to turn over their home and property without a financial safety net for the future must have been momentous. I asked the Kyles how long they pondered their options. Georgean knitted her brows in mock puzzlement.

"Oh, about a second," she replied. "Maybe less."

"We have every confidence that Travis Audubon are the proper hands," Paul added. "After all the effort and love we have put into preserving the property, selling it for development to deal with some late-life health issue and put off the inevitable for a few years just makes no sense." The Kyles' is the gift that keeps on giving, sustaining aloft those swirling flights of swifts at dusk over the towers of Chaetura Canyon.

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Frank Graham Jr.

Frank Graham Jr. is a field editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine