More than 60 years of chimney swift history and village tradition came crumbling down a few weeks ago as a backhoe demolished Northville’s Hubbell Chimney.
“We lost a very important historical landmark,” said Village Historian Gail Cramer. “We lost a community event, but most importantly, we lost the swifts.”
Year after year on May 6, a flock of chimney swifts would end their migration from the Amazon rain forest in a swirling mass over the entrance to the old brick monolith.
Back in the 1950s, original owner Ray Hubbell noticed the birds returned to the chimney of his glove factory every year on his birthday. He threw a party and a tradition was born — one that continued even after Hubbell died and his factory burned to the ground.
Locals and traveling bird watchers gathered at sunset to eat fried dough supplied by the nearest Boy Scout troop, listen to the high school jazz band and watch the swifts return.
“The birds would go round and round in a circle, just making the sky black,” Cramer said, “then, as the sun was going down, they’d pour in like a funnel.”
For her, demolition of the chimney came as a big surprise.
“No one knew until we saw it on Facebook,” she said.
Arthur Horton, who owns the land where the chimney stood, could not be reached for comment Monday, but there were a few good reasons to knock the thing down.
It was very nearly 100 years old and starting to crumble.
“I think he was concerned about liability,” she said, “which is par for the course these days.”
When the swifts return, a few hundred people would gather around, many on Horton’s property. If the old structure finally collapsed with bird watchers in its path, Horton could have been in trouble.
Cramer wished he would have let the village know and given them a chance to fix the chimney. Now that it’s gone, she said, it would be impossible to erect a similar structure in time to welcome the swifts home.
“We’d have to have it up by May 6,” she said. “Who would pay for it? Even if we could, the swifts might not even use it.”
Even if Horton had enlisted the villagers to patch up the chimney, the swift tradition might not have lasted too much longer. The cloud of swooping birds was once quite a spectacle, drawing big crowds from all over the Capital Region, but Cramer’s description of swifts darkening the sky is left over from her childhood.
Decades ago, swifts came by the thousands, but numbers have been declining for years. This spring only about 50 showed up, outnumbered by onlookers 4 to 1.
Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Ornithology Lab has previously told The Gazette that the swift population in the Adirondacks is declining by 5 percent every year due in large part to a changing habitat. Swifts originally nested in hollow trees, then made the switch to chimneys as houses took the place of forest. Now even chimneys are getting too small and smooth for swifts to nest.
Next year those last few dozen birds will be in for a surprise.
“It’s going to be sad,” Cramer said. “I’m sure they’ll come back, but they’re going to be confused.”
She worries they won’t be able to find another place in the village to nest, “which is really too bad because they eat their weight in mosquitoes every day.”