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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Prairie Gardens

There are Indiana Master Naturalist classes held in various areas throughout the state.  Some of the class groups have active alumni groups.  I took my class in Ft. Wayne, but since Elkhart is closer I joined their alumni group. We meet once every three months for an educational program, and we do a group service project every three months also, made more enjoyable by a picnic that precedes the work detail.  Most of the work is enjoyable anyhow, because I’m working with like-minded people who share my concern for the environment.

    At the beginning of this month we met at American Park in Elkhart and had a picnic potluck, after which we moved over to the Prairie Garden at Elkhart Central High School and spent the evening weeding.

    The prairie garden was a small area around an old chimney tower that had been part of a school long ago. The old school was torn down, but local people had noticed that chimney swifts were roosting in the chimney, so they petitioned the Elkhart Schools to leave the tower standing at least until the birds migrated, hoping that perhaps a replica tower could be built in the nearby park. The school agreed to spare the tower and through grants was able to have the chimney repaired so that it wasn’t in danger of collapsing on anyone. A prairie garden was planted around the base.

    By the time we got there, it was more of a prairie jungle, but at least one person in our group of 21 knew which plants should be there and which should be removed. There were some Echinacea or prairie coneflower, some common mullein, and wild sunflowers.  We removed several small mulberry trees that had volunteered to take over the area.  All in all we filled several huge trash bags with things that didn’t belong in a prairie garden. We didn’t quite get finished, but we certainly made some progress, and the school thanked our group for our help.

    Our reward for this (not that there has to be one!) was that as dusk approached we got to see the swifts arrive.  They are rather nondescript dark birds and have been described in several bird books as a “cigar with wings.”  The interesting thing about these birds is that they can’t perch.  Their feet are designed to cling to rough surfaces, like the inside of a chimney or a hollow tree.  Before man built chimneys they roosted mostly in hollow trees and maybe caves, but they adapted to us quite well and prefer chimneys, hence the name chimney swift.  Now that many people are having the chimneys capped to prevent birds roosting in them, they are looking for new habitat.




    Because they can’t perch, they do everything while flying.  They eat, bathe, and drink all in the air or by diving into a body of water. When they build a nest, they break off twigs from trees while flying, and cement the twigs to the wall of the tower or tree using their saliva.

    Swifts roost in large colonies.  The chimney at Elkhart Central easily had several hundred birds using it. When we arrived to start weeding we didn’t see any, but as twilight progressed they started to fly in from their feeding area. They circled the chimney many times and then one at a time they dropped down into the center. At any one time there may have been up to 50 birds looping through the air around the tower, but as some dropped in, more flew in to join the circling.

    From what I’ve read, some places have thousands of swifts during migration and they look almost like a tornado spiraling down in a funnel shape to drop into the roost. We didn’t see that many, but it was still an impressive sight. By the time it was almost dark, the last swift had disappeared into the chimney.

    Chimney swifts migrate to Peru in South America for the winter, but until they leave you can see them by taking a short drive to Elkhart around 7:30 p.m. or so.  By 9:15 p.m. the show was over, and as the days get shorter, you’d have to adjust the timing. There’s a parking lot by the chimney tower and you could probably watch from your car, although to see them well, I’d recommend a lawn chair or blanket. Since they are constantly moving until they drop out of sight, I didn’t get a picture of one, but it’s easy enough to look them up in any bird book or on the internet.

    Seeing my first chimney swift was one of the many rewarding experiences I’ve had since becoming an Indiana Master Naturalist.