By Dedra Cordle
Franklin Heights High School will always be the home of the Golden Falcons, but the Flying Cigars are staking their claim as well.
Unobserved by many, the Flying Cigars, most commonly known as Chimney Swifts, have been acrobatically diving in and out of the tall chimney attached to the school for decades.
For a brief period of time in the spring and summer, the swifts nest and roost and call the chimney their home before migrating back to the Amazon Basin for the winter.
One person who has been lucky enough to observe this marvel of nature at the school is Sheila Fagan.
Over 15 years ago, Fagan became the photography teacher at Franklin Heights High School after working at Westland for nearly 15 years. As an avid bird watcher and nature lover, Fagan noticed the swifts flying around almost immediately.
Knowing that they are most often spotted at dusk rather than in the daytime, Fagan did not have much opportunity to challenge her students to capture them on camera, a feat she says is nearly impossible.
“It’s even hard for me to do it because they are so small and so fast,” she said.
Still, she taught them interesting facts about the swifts and cherished the time they spent talking about the birds and observing them when they showed up.
Watching the swifts make the chimney at Franklin Heights their home has been a highlight in Fagan’s long career so it was only natural that she was worried about their possible displacement when the South-Western City Schools District announced plans to build a new school and demolish the one that has been standing on Demorest Road for nearly 50 years.
Realizing that further habitat loss was likely for the bird that resembles a zipping cigar in the air, Fagan spoke to her fellow bird activists about ways they could help offset the loss of the chimney.
Tom Sheley, the co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Dublin, spoke to Darlene Sillick, a local chimney swift expert and fellow member of the Columbus Audubon Society, and asked if there were any chimney swift towers available to put on the grounds of school. Surprisingly, there were.
“The plans to put a chimney swift tower up at another site fell through and they (the Preservation Parks of Delaware County) had one ready,” said Sheley. “It was a crazy, lucky thing and that quick phone call to Darlene really got the ball rolling.”
Obtaining permission from the district to put a chimney swift tower on school grounds, Fagan called up some friends and teachers and asked if they would be interested in helping out the chimney swifts.
“Every single one of them said ‘Where?’ and ‘What time?’” said the recently retired teacher. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to me and, I’m sure, the birds.”
The gathering of friends, faculty, students, residents and wildlife conservationists worked the long, hot and rainy summer days to find and create the perfect space for the 18 foot tall tower. Resident Delbert Miller battled the elements and installed the base while teacher Amy Corbett housed the long tower on her property. Conservationists upgraded the structure to keep out raccoons and other predators and on July 20, two days before the demolition of the chimney at Franklin Heights, cheers rang out as the freestanding beacon for the preservation of chimney swifts stood tall.
While there is no guarantee that the swifts will take to the tower – it should help that Sillick tasked Fagan with gathering droppings from the old chimney and had her put them on the bottom of the recently erected tower for familiarity – they are hopeful that it will work.
“By the end of September we should know if some have come back,” said Sillick. “The real test is next year when they migrate to the area to nest and roost.”
Sillick, who has been a member of the Columbus Audubon Society for nearly 20 years, said the chimney swift towers that are being erected all over the country are beneficial because the number of chimney swifts – a federally protected bird – have been on the decline in recent years due to loss of habitat from the removal of hollow trees and the capping of chimneys.
She said all of nature deserves to be preserved and people can help the swifts by building their own freestanding tower if their home does not have a chimney.
She invited the community to come out to Sells Middle School during the weekends throughout the months of August and September near sunset to see thousands of chimney swifts create a chittering vortex and dive into the chimney at the school in Dublin.
The official count night will be Sept. 12 and she said all are welcomed to come out and experience this phenomenon.
For more information on chimney swifts and how to build a tower, go to www.chimneyswifts.org. For more information on the official count night, or A Swift Night Out go to the Columbus Audubon site at www.columbusaudubon.org.