The Chimney Swift Roost Tower at Prairie Ridge

Chimney Swifts

Chimney Swifts

Among Wake Audubon’s Birds of the Year, the Chimney Swift, has always held a special place in our hearts. With local roosting sites diminishing and their population declining for reasons not well understood, we undertook an exceptional project together with you and other caring partners. We partnered with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to construct a state-of-the art roosting chimney with research capability and a beautiful area for viewing the chimney Swift migration phenomenon.  This roosting chimney is located at the museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation, Gold Star Drive, Raleigh, NC.

Visit this site to take in the interpretive signage, benches and viewing patio of inscribed bricks. We have recently completed the installation of a native plant garden surrounding the chimney viewing area. These plants will attract birds and insects to the site. Click here to read a description of the plants in this garden.

Early Research

Chimney Swifts were the object of study during the 1930s to 1950s, when volunteers and scientists teamed together and banded 550,000 swifts at nest and roost chimneys. Much of the effort was centered in Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia. We learned that only one pair will nest in a chimney, and that the pair will often return to nest in same chimney year after year. They raise 4-5 young who remain in the chimney for 4 weeks after hatching.

In August the birds abandon the nest chimneys to gather in flocks which roost at night in large industrial-sized chimneys as they prepare for migration. The roosts grow as northern birds join them, so by September many roosts in the south can host as many as 7500 swifts. These roosts allowed for the large banding efforts that took place – the swifts would be caught in netted cages placed atop the chimney mouths as the swifts emerged from their roost. Ultimately we learned that Chimney Swifts winter in the upper Amazon region of Peru.

But there are many things we still don’t know. Here’s a small sampling…

First, Chimney Swift numbers are declining by 2-3% per year – and we aren’t sure why. Are there problems with nest sites, roost site, migration or a combination of all of these? We also don’t know how long swifts stay at a roost site. We don’t know if swift families stay together during migration. We don’t know how far, or where, swifts forage when they depart each morning from a roost. And we don’t know the migration route or winter destination of any particular group of swifts.

Concern for Local Roosts

Wake Audubon has been offering September viewings of Chimney Swifts coming to roost since the 1980s. Typically we would visit the site of a local school with a large free-standing chimney known to harbor thousands of migrating swifts each night during September. Watching the swifts swirl into the chimney at sunset is an incredible experience.

But in the mid-1990s we realized that many of our favorite chimneys at schools were being torn down as the school system replaced them with heat pumps. And we received reports that swifts were no longer using known roosts. In 1998 we organized the first systematic inventory of Wake County school chimneys used as roost sites by swifts – and found that there were nearly 30 chimney roosts. We repeated our surveys for 4 years, and by 2002 the number of roosts at schools had been cut in half! We raised our concerns with the School Administrators and invited School Board members to view a roost, but plans were already in the works to renovate many more HVAC systems at area schools, and new schools were being designed without chimneys.

At this point our chapter began to consider options… and one was to build a permanent roost chimney where research on swifts could be undertaken.

Finding a Partner

Chimney Tower Concept

Chimney Tower Concept

In 1998 as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences was developing exhibits for its new building one connection the designers chose to highlight was the migration of the chimney swift – a species that nests within the homes of people living in eastern North America but winters in a tropical jungle. As interest in the exhibit developed, Wake Audubon saw an opportunity to partner with the Museum on planning for a permanent site for the chimney swift roost tower. It was agreed – the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation in west Raleigh would be an ideal site. The Tower would complement the Museum’s research and citizen science missions while providing a permanent roost site with opportunities for visitors to witness the spectacle of swifts coming to roost. In addition, Frank Harmon Associates had a long-standing relationship with Prairie Ridge, and offered his architectural services to design the Tower.


With ambitious plans to construct a 30-foot tall, 5 foot x 5 foot wide, brick chimney with viewing patio, landscaped garden, benches, interpretive signage and research technology, the chapter went to work raising money. First, we established a partnership with the Friends of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

Then we raised money by the following means:

  1. “Buy-a-Brick for Swifts” campaign – more than 100 people purchased inscribed bricks for the viewing patio, and we raised over $10,000. This campaign remains ongoing. Learn more.
  2. Custom Brick & Supply, Raleigh, NC, donated 9350 bricks for the tower structure.
  3. We received a $4,000 grant from the Carolina Bird Club.
  4. We offered slide talks to more than two dozen groups and raised $1,000 from stipends.
  5. We received a $5,000 gift from the estate of a local supporter.
  6. In partnership with the Friends, we were the recipient of a $25,000 grant from Toyota TogetherGreen by Audubon.

Total Receipts for the Project: Approximately $50,000

Toyota TogetherGreen

As part of the Toyota TogetherGreen by Audubon grant, our chapter developed Topic Boxes on Swifts for use in continuing education programs. We will provide educational programming on chimney swifts to area schools this spring, with after-school programs in the fall.

Throughout the weekend of August 21-23, 2015, we were terrifically excited to host four community events in celebration of the completion of the roosting tower and to welcome swifts to it.

  • Chimney Swift Conservation Forum – gave our community the opportunity to meet and learn from experts from around the country who have worked to save Chimney Swifts and a relative out west, the Vaux’s Swift
  • Chimney Swift Conservation Workshop -gathered experts while in town and Audubon NC to discuss ideas for future swift conservation programs we can implement in our communities and offer nationally
  • Chimney Swift Family Festival – invited families to see life through the eyes of Chimney Swifts via games, crafts, education stations and more. Visitors also peeked inside the roosting tower at a nest where our first tenants fledged three young this summer.
  • Swift Community Stake-out – welcomed people to viewings throughout downtown Raleigh at urban chimneys that host thousands of roosting swifts at locations unknown to many and most of which are in danger of being lost to redevelopment.

See details describing these events on our Celebrate Swifts pages.

Check our calendar for future activities as they are scheduled.

The Future

The Chimney Swift Roost Tower was built with research and viewing capabilities in place. Researchers will be able to install equipment within the chimney at special portholes, and the chimney is designed to accommodate live video feeds that can be made available on the internet.

Our hope is that swifts will adopt the chimney as a permanent autumn roost, and the viewing public will have a secure site to witness their migration spectacle long into the future. We also hope that in a few years researchers will begin to unravel some of the mysteries that still surround this species and that Prairie Ridge will become known as a leader of swift research.

Find more about Chimney Swifts through the seasons in our Bird of the Year archive.