Chimney swift

A chimney swift. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

A group of local “birders” are worried about the impact that demolition of East Elementary School in Athens will have on an important resting place for a group of migratory birds that are becoming increasingly scarce.

The Athens Area Birders say the large central chimney at East Elementary on the Near East Side is the resting place for a group of chimney swifts as they make their yearly migration down to South America. Each fall, hundreds of chimney swifts flock in and out of the old chimney at the school, treating it as a kind of way-station.

Athens City Schools Supt. Tom Gibbs has had multiple conversations with the local birder group, and while there’s no set solution yet, he said the chimney has to come down. The cost to demolish East Elementary but keep, and reinforce, its chimney, is more than $100,000, according to cost estimates from the School District’s architect, Gibbs said in a recent interview.

Stefan Gleissberg with the Athens Area Birders said Tuesday that his group is concerned because chimney swifts have seen a significant decline in population over the last few decades, by about 70 percent or so. That’s due to large-scale decimation of insect populations due to widespread pesticide use and removal or capping of chimneys and other structures that the swifts use to rest and nest in, he explained.

Gleissberg and Athens Area Birders member Aimee Delach said in separate interviews that while they still would like for the School District to keep the East Elementary chimney, they’ve had conversations about what the district could do as an alternative. One option? For the School District to build new chimneys, possibly on school grounds. 

School Board Vice President Sean Parsons already has built a chimney swift tower in his own backyard to see what it would look like, he confirmed Tuesday, as an example for students to potentially build them themselves at the school.

Gibbs said he’s on board with that idea as an “environmental education opportunity” for students. 

“We can put them at all of our schools; it doesn’t have to be just there (at East),” Parsons added.

Another option, which needs further analysis, Gibbs said, is for the School District to take off the cap on the chimney at the Athens Middle School to provide another large chimney for swifts to find as a resting place. 

Loraine McCosker, who lives in the neighborhood near East Elementary, said she’s concerned about the removal of the birds because “these birds are in decline and they are migratory birds, so they’re protected by the (U.S.) Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” 

Gibbs said that to his understanding, the chimney swifts are not on the endangered list (they’re currently listed as “threatened”) so removing the chimney wouldn’t directly cause the School District to run afoul of that federal law.

Delach said she appreciates the School District considering building smaller towers on school grounds but said she hasn’t seen any evidence showing that the swifts will use the smaller towers as stop-over points.

“From what we understand about the species, they do really like those tall chimneys where they can go in overnight,” she said.

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