Courthouse deconstruction continues
Despite bird flap, process goes on without delay
Chimney swifts roosting in the brick chimney of the old county courthouse will be forced to find a new home when the chimney comes down. Demolition began Wednesday, and Thursday, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife gave the ok for the chimney to come down, as long as no birds are inside when it is demolished. The chimney was still standing when crews finished work Thursday, though a few bricks had been knocked from its top.
Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »
water is sprayed to keep dust down as the Courthouse is being deconstructed. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
GREENFIELD — Hundreds of migratory birds will soon find themselves homeless, as their roost at the former Franklin County Courthouse comes down.
The birds, called chimney swifts, spend their winters in the Amazon Basin, returned to town in the beginning of May, about 1,000 taking up residence in the chimney of the old courthouse. They have been seen roosting there in previous years as well, a thick swarm moving as one as they returned from their day’s foraging to rest in the chimney around dusk.
By the time the birds came back to roost this spring, construction crews had begun to prepare the building for demolition. The courthouse has been vacant since February, when the courts moved to a temporary location on Munson Street. Wednesday, demolition of the south side of the old building began, and by Thursday afternoon, a small part of the chimney’s top had been taken down.
While demolition of the chimney will go on as planned, construction crews and the state Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which is in charge of the project, will work in concert with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure the birds are not hurt, according to DCAMM spokeswoman Meghan Kelly.
“To ensure that no adult birds that use the chimney for roosting are killed during the chimney removal, demolition will be done during daylight hours and the chimney will be checked for the presence of birds before it is demolished,” Kelly said.
Chimney swifts roost together in a flock before pairing up with mates and flying off to their own chimneys to nest and raise their young.
By the time demolition began Wednesday, the 1,000 birds roosting in the chimney had dwindled to a couple hundred, as most had moved on to their mating nests, according to ornithologist Andrew Vitz of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Vitz said the birds would likely continue to pair off and leave until the middle of the month, though some, which wouldn’t mate this year, would continue to roost in the chimney until it was time to fly south again for the winter.
Late Tuesday night, a local bird lover who had been following the flock of swifts reached out to Vitz to see if the birds’ roost could be saved.
“That chimney is clearly a very important roosting site for the swifts,” said Kevin Edding, of Greenfield. Edding holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in wildlife biology.
“Nowadays, people aren’t building as many chimneys, and the ones that are built are either lined with metal or capped, so the birds can’t get in or roost,” Edding continued.
Edding proposed that the state mitigate the loss of the chimney by installing a specialized tower on the site, in which the birds could roost.
Edding said he tried to save an Amherst chimney swift roost, at the former Amherst Cinema, but was unsuccessful. The demolition, he said, occurred before the birds had arrived that year.
Joan Walsh, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said Edding’s efforts are not uncommon.
“There are big chimneys being torn down all over the place, and swifts are losing their roosting spaces,” she said. “There are some groups doing ‘chimney watches,’ trying to identify and protect roosting sites before something like this happens. It’s a shame this site wasn’t identified ahead of time, and couldn’t be delayed.”
Walsh said the birds’ numbers are on the decline in the eastern US and Canada. The species thrived before and after the Industrial Revolution, taking advantage of the large chimneys being built in factories and other buildings along the eastern seaboard.
After Edding tipped off the state ornithologist, Vitz got in touch with DCAMM, which sent a worker up to peer into the top of the chimney and look for nests. Vitz said his office drafted a list of procedures for demolition crews to follow to keep from harming the birds.
While the birds themselves, as well as their nesting locations, are protected from destruction by the Migratory Bird Treaty, their roosting spots are not. Vitz said it was highly unlikely that the swifts had nests in the courthouse chimney, as pairs prefer to mate in solitude.
Vitz said the birds roosting in the courthouse should have no trouble finding a new home.
“It seems to be an important roosting site, but, at the same time, they will find another place to roost,” said Vitz. “There seem to be quite a few chimneys nearby without caps. When they come back, if the (courthouse) chimney isn’t there, there are others they can use.”
Vitz called chimney swifts an “urbanized and highly adaptable” species, capable of finding a new home in which to roost.