IU-funded project breaks ground on 'functional sculpture' bird habitat in Bloomington

Twelve-foot 'chimney swift tower' to provide home for about 250 members of the threatened bird species

  • Oct. 26, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A 12-foot-tall Indiana University-funded tower that recently began construction in Bloomington, Ind., will provide a new home for about 250 members of a bird species whose habitat has been threatened by a number of factors over the past century.

The giant bird house, which builders stood upright on Thursday and are continuing construction on this week, will provide breeding and roosting space for chimney swifts, a tiny, "smudge gray" species of bird named for its habit of nesting in hollow trees and, more recently, chimneys. Decoration of the tower will take place in the spring.

Support for the project comes from an inaugural Elinor Ostrom Program Grant, launched by the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences in 2014 in honor of late IU faculty Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. Elinor Ostrom was named winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Located at WonderLab's Lester P. Bushnell WonderGarden, the IU-funded tower is one of five being constructed across downtown Bloomington over the next year. Other tower locations include Harmony School and Sherwood Oaks Park.

The project, titled "Swifts in the City," is led by Jessica Hite, a doctoral student in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology and a board member at Bloomington’s Sassafras Audubon Society, a chapter of the national environmental conservation group serving eight counties in south-central Indiana.

Ellen Ketterson, IU Distinguished Professor of Biology and Gender Studies, is faculty sponsor on the project.

"By combining art, science and technology, this project will take an innovative approach to making public landscapes work for both people and conservation," Hite said. "We're fusing public art and science to not only provide an essential breeding habitat for chimney swifts but also engage multiple groups in environmental outreach and education, and to contribute to long-term local and national monitoring programs of these birds."

Frequently mistaken for bats, chimney swifts are often seen as large clouds of birds twirling around rooftops at dusk. Like all swifts they are incapable of perching, only able to cling to vertical surfaces. Their natural habitat of hollow trees has been declining since the first European settlers reached North America.

Eventually the species adapted to human encroachment by roosting in tall brick smokestacks and brick and mortar chimneys, acquiring a name change in the process. Previously, they were simply known as "American swifts."

But the birds' numbers started to drop rapidly again around the 1960s. The exact causes of this decline are unknown, but some experts point to the increased popularity of chimney caps, blocking access to breeding and roosting spaces.

Today, chimney swifts are designated as "near threatened" in the U.S. by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and "federally threatened" in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

The construction of swift towers across the U.S. and beyond is an effort to help reverse this threat to the chimney swift population. But the species’ mating habits mean many towers are needed since only one pair of chimney swifts breeds at each site -- despite the fact that hundreds of birds may share the same space for resting at night. (A territorial species, the swifts require about 10 feet of space between couples to breed.) This behavior, combined with the decrease in "swift-friendly" chimneys, is one of many threats facing the species.

"It's quite deceiving when you see these large colonies of swifts, because you assume that their populations are healthy," Hite said. "It's a common misperception that has affected other species since gone extinct, such as the passenger pigeon.

“Creating new spaces for the swifts to roost and, most importantly, breed will hopefully contribute to the species’ successful recovery," she added.

Rusty Peterson, a Bloomington-based craftsman, is constructing the tower at WonderLab. In the spring, Bloomington-based community artist Joe LaMantia will create a "swift-focused" artwork for the tower in collaboration with artists from Stone Belt, a local organization that provides support to individuals with developmental disabilities. Volunteers from the Sassafras Audubon Society will also assist with long-term maintenance and support for the tower.

"This project is really all about involving the community," Hite said. "We want everyone involved to experience the sense of belonging, pride and accomplishment that accompanies collaborative artwork. Stone Belt's mission to empower their members through art and hands-on community projects is the cornerstone of our project."

The tower also will feature two "swift-cams," closed-circuit cameras in the tower connected to a monitor at a kiosk within the museum, previously established with support from another grant to Ketterson. During the cold-weather months, while the swifts roost in South America, the screens will be used to display Ketterson’s acclaimed short documentary film, "The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco," about another beloved bird.

"This tower will provide a wonderful opportunity for community outreach and education," Ketterson said. "As a researcher and bird-lover, I was happy to lend my support to Jessica's work to protect these charismatic birds."

Others contributors to the project are Sassafras Audubon Society president Tommy Grave, former president David Rupp and member Robert Hongen. The society was also essential to the construction of a swift tower at Bloomington’s Fairview Elementary School in 2010.

IU graduate student Rachel Hanauer and undergraduate Katie Griebel have also helped with swift-related outreach programs at Harmony School and WonderLab.

"We're grateful for IU's support of this project," said Karen Jepson-Innes, associate executive director at WonderLab. "Grant programs such as the Ostrom Program Grants from the College of Arts and Sciences can really make a big difference by providing support to scholars working in the community. This tower may never have made it off the drawing board without it."

Final construction on the IU-funded tower will be complete in the coming days, with the accompanying artwork completed in the early spring.

An artists' reception at WonderLab to celebrate the project -- and the return of the swifts from South America -- is also expected in the spring.

swift tower construction

Builders and volunteers erect the unfinished bird habitat tower at WonderLab. | Photo by Indiana University

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chimney swift tower

Local artists will decorate the exterior of the tower in the spring. | Photo by Indiana University

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Jessica Hite

Jessica Hite | Photo by Indiana University

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Media Contacts

Kevin Fryling

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  • kfryling@iu.edu