Archive for June, 2008

Try this at home.  Take out a map of your town.  Get a compass and draw a circle with your house at the center.  Make the distance from your house to the circle’s edge equal to one mile.  Everything in that circle is less than a mile from where you live.  Contemplate your circle.  


Your first surprise will be the number of things in the circle that you know nothing about.  There will probably be streets you’ve never been down and brooks you didn’t know existed.  There may be a hill you’ve never climbed or a pond you’ve never walked by.  Most of us couldn’t identify the plants and the animals that are our closest neighbors.


The circle around my house is just like that.  There are some things I do know: there is a huge, muscular tree that is as old as the town of Brunswick.  There is a stand of towering white pines.  There’s a chunky section of Maine’s third longest river, the Androscoggin, where native salmon, shad and eels are fighting for existence.  Then, too, in my circle I see streets I didn’t know were there, an entire neighborhood I’ve never walked through, and a brook I’ve only crossed on the road.  


It was a call last week from a friend that forced me into serious contemplation of the world right in front of my nose.  She was looking for information about a natural spectacle occurring in my neighborhood.  Of course, she assumed that I knew about it – a reasonable assumption since I live just a few hundred feet away – but I was ashamed to admit I knew nothing.  


I would not have felt so bad if we’d been talking about, say, the migration of gnats or the blossoming of a rare mold.  However, this spectacle involved hundreds of flying creatures, each nearly a foot across, making a fair amount of noise.  It was the return of the chimney swifts–and I just wasn’t paying attention. 


At dusk the next day I walked across the street to the back parking lot of the town’s old (abandoned) high school, from which there is clear view of the building’s chimney.  A small cloud of several hundred chittering birds were circling the chimney.  They drew closer and closer to the chimney’s mouth.  Then, in just a few seconds, the entire swarm spiraled into the chimney and was gone.  The sky was clear and completely quiet.  It looked as if the chimney had suddenly vacuumed all the birds from the air.  I’d never seen anything like it.


These swifts had recently finished a 3,000-mile migration from the Amazon River basin in Peru.  During migration chimney swifts roost together in large colonies–typically in old brick chimneys.  Some of our swifts will continue on further north, while others will pair up and find nesting sites nearby. 


Chimney swifts make wonderful neighbors.  They are in constant flight from the time they leave their roosts in the morning until they return in the evening.  They fuel all this activity on $4/gallon gas from the Middle East.  No, wait, that’s my car.  Swifts run their engines on spectacular quantities of bugs; each and every bird eats thousands of critters a day – including mosquitoes and black flies.  (Could they be part of the reason I’ve always found my yard surprisingly bug-free?).  


Sadly, the number of these friendly birds has dropped by nearly half in Maine over the last two decades.  Canada has listed them as a threatened species following a long decline of 95%.  A significant factor in their decline has been loss of roosting and nesting habitat.  The swifts cannot cling to the smooth, lined walls of most modern chimneys. 


Luckily for the swifts, and for the rest of us as well, some folks around town have been paying more attention than I.  In the months following the Town Council’s vote to tear down the old high school the Council also voted unanimously to support the replacement of the swift’s apartment with a new structure on the same site (to be paid for with a combination of grants and private fundraising).  


I imagine teachers at the new elementary school, slated to be built on the old high school site, being able to teach children about migration, geography, biology, food chains, and ecology – just by opening the door and talking about chimney swifts.  


I imagine a day here in Brunswick, when every school child and every adult takes delight in this natural wonder with which our town has been graced.  And, I wonder why I never noticed it.  It is all too easy to give up on the nature in our backyards–especially for those of us living in urban settings.  Once the pavement goes in, it can seem that the remaining details don’t much matter.  I never saw the swifts simply because I never thought such a wonder could be dwelling in a decayed building above a potholed parking lot. 


Yet, as our urban areas continue to grow, we would be wise to seek more opportunities to coexist with nature.  We can build our towns and plant our gardens in a way that lets us live a bit more in harmony with the natural world.  Many critters will never be happy in an urban setting, but thoughtful planning can let a surprising number join us – and enrich us.  


Last summer, when a milkweed plant (the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay eggs) popped up in my garden, monarch caterpillars appeared within a month.  A book told me that bee-balm attracts hummingbirds–and the day my bee-balm bloomed, lo and behold the hummingbirds came.  If we build a new home for our chimney swifts, it should surprise no one if they move in.

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