By Mandy Calkins
One July evening at dusk, I took my son out for one of his first birding experiences: watching hundreds of chimney swifts funnel into an old chimney at Brentwood Elementary School. In summer, the swifts’ twinkling calls can be heard throughout Brentwood Park, along with the chirps of Purple Martins and peent calls of Nighthawks, as they all swoop through the air catching insects on the wing.
Brentwood’s swifts roost inside an unused scratch brick chimney that is part of the 1950s-era school building in Central Austin. Bird lovers have been monitoring the swifts there for at least ten years, according to the Chimney Swift Conservation Association in Driftwood, Texas. Ebird shows a high count of over 700 swifts at the site in 2018. Swifts gather in these impressive flocks between the end of nesting season and the start of migration, and the sight of hundreds of the tiny streamlined birds descending in a tornado-like formation is a dramatic sight.
Naturally, when the plan was drawn up to modernize Brentwood Elementary and the chimney was set to be demolished, people were concerned about the future of the swift colony. Fortunately, a group composed of AISD staff, along with members of Friends of Brentwood Park and local residents, came together to advocate for the construction of a new tower. AISD contacted the Chimney Swift Conservation Association, who provided design plans for a new tower to be built adjacent to the school. Their design includes coarsely textured inside walls that the swifts need to cling and attach nests.
Thanks to the efforts of bird-loving individuals, the new tower was constructed this summer by the company in charge of the Brentwood renovation. Its appearance may have sparked new interest in the swifts, with curious residents asking neighbors about its purpose. It could take a few years for the swifts to move into the new structure, if they select it at all, said the Chimney Swift Conservation Association. When the birds return in summer and find their old roosting site gone, they will search the area, before moving on to find a new site. With luck, they will choose the tower that area bird lovers came together to build, and their nightly flights will continue to be a welcome summer spectacle in the park.