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Celebrating a Threatened Bird

By: Brianna Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Margaret Rubega, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of LIberal Arts and Sciences, tells a crowd of about 50 onlookers about the habits of the local chimney swifts. (Brianna Diaz/UConn Photo)

Margaret Rubega, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, tells a crowd of about 50 onlookers about the habits of the local chimney swifts. (Brianna Diaz/UConn Photo)

At sunset on Monday, a crowd of about 50 spectators gathered on Main Street in downtown Willimantic. Led by UConn faculty member Margaret Rubega, the Connecticut State Ornithologist, the group was there to witness a chimney swift “tornado,” or swarm, as the birds returned to their chimney homes for the night.

“We’ve identified roosts of up to 900 birds” in the Nathan Hale Building and Windham Town Hall, Rubega told the group.

The gathering was part of Chimney Swift Conservation Night at the Willimantic Brewing Co. and Main Street Café, where local birders, conservation enthusiasts, and members of the community drank a special microbrew in honor of the birds, learned about their habits and conservation, and watched for themselves as the swifts flew in circles right above their heads.

The event highlighted Willimantic as an important urban habitat for the species, which Rubega describes as a small, brown, unmelodic bird that glues its nests together with spit. The birds’ feet are modified so they can’t perch on horizontal surfaces, so they nest in vertical, dark spaces like chimneys.

Chimney swifts returning in great numbers to their roost in the chimney of the Nathan Hale Building in downtown Willimantic. (Brianna Diaz/UConn Photo)

Chimney swifts returning in great numbers to their roost in the chimney of the Nathan Hale Building in downtown Willimantic. (Brianna Diaz/UConn Photo)

Chimney swifts are one of several species of avian insectivores – birds that feed on insects – that are experiencing population decline. The chimney swift population, which can be found east of the Rocky Mountains and from Canada all the way down the Eastern seaboard, has been in decline over the past 40 years, though it has been relatively stable in the geographical region that includes Connecticut.

“The stability could mean that we’re a sink, meaning that birds come here and disappear and new birds come in behind them,” said Rubega, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has become a vocal advocate for the birds. “It also could mean that we have a great environment for chimney swifts, in which case it is important to find and preserve characteristics that encourage stability.”

In this spirit of advocacy, Rubega and colleague Min Huang, who leads the migratory gamebird program at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), approached Willimantic Brewing Co. owner and brewer David Wollner to host the event.

Wollner concocted a special beer, dubbed Flying Cigar Ale, named for the body description frequently used by birders to identify chimney swifts. A portion of the beer’s profits will go to chimney swift conservation efforts.

“People love to come downtown, and we’re spreading the news about the birds,” Wollner said. “It’s just all-around good for the community.”

Huang noted that he is invested in the birds both professionally and personally as a resident of Willimantic. “I love to see people coming to downtown Willimantic, especially to see the nature that’s in their own hometown,” he said.

Read more at UConn Today.


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