When chimney goes where will Monroe’s Vaux’s swifts roost?

While there may not be a swift solution to the thousands of Vaux’s swifts swirling around and diving into the chimney at Frank Wagner Elementary School in Monroe to roost every fall, there’s already a glimmer of hope.

The Monroe School District has no immediate plans to dismantle the brick chimney, but its days are numbered because of safety concerns.

About 35 save-our-swifts folks from the community, government agencies and Audubon societies gathered Feb. 28 to discuss options.

The school’s birds are the second-largest known concentration of Vaux’s swifts in the U.S., and have been using the chimney at least since the 1960s, according to a resident.

“I was pretty encouraged,” said Susie Schaeffer, Pilchuck Audubon Society vice president.

“One man had known about the swifts for 40 years! I was hoping someone like that would show up. People seemed interested and committed. It was a very cooperative atmosphere. People were concerned and wanted to get things moving.”

Several years ago state Department of Fish and Wildlife employees checked photographs to count 3,349 Vaux’s swifts entering the school’s chimney and estimated up to 4,000, said state biologist Patricia Thompson.

The birds apparently overlap like shingles inside the chimney during their roosting, said Larry Schwitters, who has studied black swifts and is studying Vaux’s swifts, too.

Since little is known about these swifts, it makes it harder to create a solution that resolves all issues.

Options for the chimney were discussed, including stabilizing the entire chimney, cutting off half of the chimney to stabilize it (although it’s not known whether the swifts would find that acceptable) and building chimneys or towers.

Other ideas include volunteers staking out other chimneys that may be attracting swifts, developing a citizen-science project focusing on the birds, inserting a camera into the chimney, and holding a “Swift Night Out” to observe the birds coming in to roost in the fall.

Health concerns because of bird droppings in the chimney seem to be unlikely at this time, because it’s totally sealed off, although the birds often leave their calling cards in the school vicinity.

Money will be an issue, Schaeffer said, and an auction is planned that includes a wildlife painting by a Monroe correctional facility inmate.

“I’ve seen samples. He’s pretty good,” said Schaeffer, who added that someone has already pledged $1,000 to whatever solution is found.

If you’re interested, check out the video showing the efforts of Portland Audubon Society and the Portland School District to protect the largest flock of Vaux’s swifts in North America. Go to www.youtube.com and search for “OPB” and “Vaux’s swifts.”

Whatever the solution, Schaeffer is ready. She’s purchased plans for building swift towers, an alternative to chimneys.

The next community meeting is a 7 p.m. April 8, board room, Monroe School District Administration Building, 200 E. Fremont St., Monroe.

Bear smarts: Nan Laney of the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project will discuss bear recovery, biology and how to coexist with our state’s bears next month.

She’ll speak at the 7 p.m. April 11 meeting of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, which is open to the public. The location is the Lauterbach room at the Snohomish Fire Station, 1525 Ave. D.

For more information, call 425-252-0926.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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