Community members have made an effort to save the 50,000 chimney swifts that live in the Masonic Temple in Bethlehem from a renovation project. Over $8,000 has been raised in a GoFundMe campaign to aid the cause. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Bethlehem community works together to save at-risk local chimney swift bird population


Bethlehem residents have joined forces to save the home of the local chimney swift bird population as plans are adapted to preserve the chimney of the Masonic Temple.

The historic structure was set to be demolished as a part of local real estate development, however, dozens of Bethlehem residents, including the property’s owner and developer John Noble, are working together to fortify the temple’s chimney as a separate structure so local chimney swifts can keep their roosting site.

A “Save Our Swifts” GoFundMe, hosted by the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society in an effort to fund the chimney preservation, has raised over $8,000 in less than two months.

Bethlehem fourth grade teacher Jennie Gilrain has spearheaded the community effort. As a self-described “bird-lover,” Gilrain has made a habit out of observing the swifts and said she is passionate about ensuring their survival.

Lehigh Valley Audubon Society President Peter Saenger said there has been a 72 percent decline in the overall chimney swift population since the mid-1960s, and humans are partly to blame. 

Saenger, who serves as the research ornithologist and collection manager at Muhlenberg College’s Acopian Center for Ornithology, said that while the swifts used to live in hollow trees, the deforestation of Pennsylvania has forced the birds to adapt to living in chimneys. Unlike other birds, chimney swifts are unable to perch. 

“They rely on our chimneys, so we somewhat have a moral obligation to help them,” Saenger said. 

Noble purchased the property that houses the Masonic Temple in 2015 without a definite plan for the land. Noble said he didn’t know about the swifts’ occupancy until Gilrain contacted him.

When Noble was made aware of the swift’s residency on his newly-acquired property, he spent two weeks researching possible solutions to protect them. According to Noble, it took two different engineering reviews to ensure that preserving the original chimney was a possibility. This process did not come without extra costs. 

Despite the personal cost, Noble said, “Why wouldn’t you save the swifts? If you had knowledge that something you were doing was going to have that big of an impact on wildlife, why wouldn’t you try to make sure you did whatever you could do to not impact them?”

Noble said that although he would have gone through every effort to save the birds , he credits Gilrain’s respectful approach for making this process a rewarding experience.

Saenger said that over his 16 years as a president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, he was unaccustomed to developers being as accommodating as Noble. 

“Something like this, where it’s going to cost him a ton of money, slow their project down and complicate their lives, I can’t imagine anyone else being this good,” he said.

Gilrain said she hopes that Noble’s actions will set a precedent for others in terms of protecting local wildlife. 

“Maybe other developers will see what an amazing thing it can be to protect the environment,” she said.

Gilrain is working with the Bethlehem Area Public Library through a Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium grant to host a series of virtual forums to raise awareness about the plight of chimney swifts. The first forum took place Feb. 17. The second and third forums will be held on March 11 and April 21. Anyone can register to attend these sessions via the Bethlehem Area Public Library’s website

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