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Answering the SOS That’s Save Our Swifts, Wyandotte St. migratory visitors

Good St. Nick isn’t the only one to make good use of chimneys in The Christmas City, as the large chimney of the Masonic Temple houses thousands of chimney swifts each fall migration season.

With the Masonic Temple currently under demolition as part of a redevelopment project, the community is moving swiftly to save the birds, which are in sharp decline, by saving their urban habitat at 202 Wyandotte St. in South Bethlehem.

“A group of citizens from all walks of life is joining forces” to save the birds, said Jennie Gilrain, member of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society (LVAS).

Gilrain first spotted the small gray birds whirling through the air two years ago, and she and her husband, Mark McKenna, tracked them to the chimney of the Masonic Temple, the seat of their comings and goings. The Masonic Temple was built in 1925.

Developer and property owner John Noble is committed to saving the birds. Two options are under consideration: reinforce the existing 40-foot-high, 5-foot square chimney as a stand-alone structure; or build a duplicate replacement, freestanding structure on site. The goal is to have the work completed by spring migration in April.

Gilrain said Noble has agreed to save the chimney while demolishing the building around it to save the birds. On a recent visit to the demolition site, Gilrain saw the chimney still standing.

“The western wall has been ripped away and the steel beams have been cut close to the chimney’s edge,” she said. “Demolition has been slowed down significantly in order to preserve the chimney, which drives up the cost of equipment rental and labor.”

The demolition is now happening on the eastern side of the chimney, and as Noble said Jan. 9, “We are trying to have the chimney standing and the demo going past it this week. Barring bad weather, by Friday it will only have a little steel helping it stand.”

According to Noble, the crew was working carefully by hand with chisels, hammers and jackhammers around the eastern edge of the chimney during the first full week of January.

“I think the level of care and skill that John and the demolition crew are employing to save the chimney is quite astounding,” Gilrain said.

“In the end, if the existing chimney cannot be saved, John Noble has agreed to build a duplicate roosting tower on the property, 60 feet to the north of the original,” Gilrain said.

The LVAS has swooped in to help, agreeing to raise money to help with the cost of saving the roost through the Save Our Swifts GoFundMe Charity https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/save-our-swifts. As of Jan. 18, $6,055 of the $50,000 goal had been raised by 86 people in 18 days.

According to LVAS President Peter Saenger, “This level of cooperation between developers and conservationists is extremely unusual and highly commendable.”

Gilrain calls it “Miracle on Wyandotte Street.”

Saenger is an endowed research ornithologist and collection manager in the bird museum within the Acopian Center for Ornithology of the Department of Biology at Muhlenberg College.

“The fundraising is going well considering the time of year – holidays – and what the world is experiencing at this time. To be at 10 percent of our goal in eight days is encouraging,” Saenger said Jan. 9. “We need to reach a broader audience and get the point across just how important this project is to the overall health of our environment.”

No funds will be dispersed to the developer until the completion of the project. Any funds procured beyond the actual cost of the chimney swift structure will be used to raise awareness, educate the community, document existing roots, advocate for the preservation of chimney habitats, and build new swift towers throughout the City of Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.

The charity webpage includes a “Save Our Swifts” promo video created by Gilrain’s son, Aidan Gilrain-McKenna, who also composed the original music for the video that explains the project and includes comments from Gilrain, Noble and Saenger.

The page features photos by Gilrain’s friend Larry Snyder and Scott Burnet, chairperson of the Habitat Committee of LVAS and chimney swift expert, who has built over 100 chimney swift towers in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Mark McKenna took the cell phone videos of the swifts flying into the chimney.

“Mark helped me get the Save Our Swifts GoFundMe webpage up and running,” Gilrain said. “The entire effort has been a labor of love for the whole team over the holidays.”

The page also has two news videos from NBC10Philly and WFMZ 69 that feature interviews with the trio, and a link to Ed Gallagher’s blog, “The Bethlehem Gadfly,” https://thebethlehemgadfly.com/category/swifts/ that has been keeping up with their progress. “I have to applaud Ed Gallagher, who has been posting regular entertaining updates on his blog,” Gilrain said.

The blog posted a record of the Jan. 5 Bethlehem City Council meeting at which Gilrain spoke.

“In light of the tremendous community effort to Save Our Swifts, I would like to make a formal request to you, the members of council, and to you, Mayor [Robert] Donchez,” Gilrain said at the meeting.

“Just as many cities around the world and throughout the United States have named a particular bird species as their own, and just as so many years ago the State of Pennsylvania named the ruffed grouse the Bird of Pennsylvania, I propose we name the chimney swift the Bird of Bethlehem.”

“The chimney swift is not only a beautiful aerial acrobat, but a welcome insectivore, consuming twice its body weight in bugs each day,” Gilrain said.

A few days later, Lynn Rothman of the City of Bethlehem Environmental Action Committee (EAC) told Gilrain the EAC will send a letter of support for the project and in support of the swift becoming the city bird. The EAC does not have the authority to actually designate city birds, but acts in an advisory capacity.

Gilrain is a fourth-grade teacher at Freemansburg Elementary School , and her friend Seth Moglen is a professor in the English Department at Lehigh University.

Gilrain noted Moglen, who lives in South Bethlehem, recently wrote to her, “I will mention to you that I was talking to an elderly former Bethlehem Steel worker in my neighborhood who asked me if I knew about the swifts and the effort to save their chimney. He told me he’d been watching them at the Masonic Temple for 75 years, since he was a little kid.”

“Amazing,” Gilrain said of the glimpse into the history of the swifts.

The LVAS sincerely appreciates donations to help them soar to the $50,000 goal to save the chimney swifts, and the way the local community has stepped up so far, it seems people are eager to answer the SOS to “Save Our Swifts.”

Saenger referred to information published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative in July 2018 that lists many of the ways birds benefit the human race. These include the economic benefits of bird conservation – bird watching and birding related tourism generates billions in economic activity.

Birds reduce pests and provide critical services to agriculture, timber and other industries. Worldwide, about 2,000 species of birds play some role in flower pollination. Fruit and seed eating birds disperse seeds of nearly 70,000 plant species from 240 plant families.

And vibrant bird habitat is linked to human health – birds control pests and reduce human diseases.

Saenger recommended other sources of information on the subject from Cornell University: the decline of chimney swifts under the conservation tab at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chimney_Swift/lifehistory; and the decline of all birds in North America https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/09/nearly-30-birds-us-canada-have-vanished-1970#

PRESS PHOTO BY TAMI QUIGLEY Jennie Gilrain, member of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society (LVAS), points to the now separated chimney of the Masonic Temple, South Bethlehem, on a Jan. 11 visit to the site. The chimney is the urban roost of thousands of chimney swifts during their fall migration.
Jennie Gilrain, center, is joined by developer and property owner John Noble and his wife, Lynn Noble, as they check out the progress made on the chimney. Gilrain said Noble has agreed to save the chimney while demolishing the building around it to save the birds.
Press photo by Scott Burnet A female chimney swift inside a nesting tower built by Scott Burnet, chairperson of the Habitat Committee of LVAS and chimney swift expert who has built over 100 chimney swift towers in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania and beyond.
Gary Armistead PHOTO The chimney swift, the small gray bird that is at the heart of the fundraising campaign sponsored by LVAS.
Press photo by Scott Burnet A chimney swift takes flight. “The chimney swift is not only a beautiful aerial acrobat, but a welcome insectivore, consuming twice its body weight in bugs each day,” Jennie Gilrain says.
Press photo by Larry Snyder Chimney swifts in flight above the chimney of the Masonic Temple.