One month a year, at a Portland elementary school, the Vaux’s swifts put on a show that rivals anything you’ve seen in theatre.
To see a Canadian lynx you’d have to hide in some shivering blind in northern Quebec for a month — alone. But what if we explained you could have a world-class nature experience in a major US city every night for a month? Hell, for this one, you don’t even have to get out of your car.
You see, every September at an old school in northwest Portland, Oregon, for about an hour around sunset, the skies come alive with one of the heaviest urban nature happenings on the planet. The world’s largest known colony of Vaux’s swifts calls the old brick chimney at Chapman Elementary home for the night during migration, and the small, speedy birds have been returning — by the thousands — since 1982.
The way this drama plays out like clockwork every night is what makes it so appealing to lazy urban naturalists. You don’t really need any patience, or stealth, or special education, or outfits in Mossy Oak™.
As the swifts gather their numbers overhead, human families snack on KFC, or, this being Portland, Tilth-certified vegan picnics washed down by sulfite-free Pinot. At first, you might only notice 50 birds or so. You’re a bit annoyed. Maybe it’s all hype. Within 10 minutes, though, there will be 500. Kinda cool. Over the next half hour, the sky will grow black with thousands of Vaux’s swifts folding and gathering and reforming around the Chapman chimney, their target for the night.
The way this drama plays out like clockwork every night is what makes it so appealing to lazy urban naturalists. You don’t really need any patience, or stealth, or special education, or outfits in mossy oak™.
“I’d say the thing I enjoy most about [it] is the fact that most of the people who gather…to watch the swifts are definitely not birders or experts in urban natural history,” says Mike Houck, 67, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute and an urban naturalist at the National Audubon Society. “They are a combination of Portland’s new population of young creatives who’ve moved here precisely to have access to nature where they live, work and play.”
Up to 35,000 birds swirl into the chimney in a single night. Got your attention yet?
Yeah, But What’s a Vaux’s Swift?
Let’s be honest: if the Vaux’s swift didn’t have this flair for flash mobs, it’d probably just be another bird, a blip among 10,000-plus species. They aren’t as cute as mountain chickadees or as smart as ravens or as utterly epic as kestrels. But this cool bird with an awkward name — pronounced VAWKsiz because their namesake, Sir William Vaux, was a Brit — is worthy of further study.
A Vaux’s looks like a swallow but isn’t one and is, in fact, more closely related to a hummingbird. One high-school teacher on the Chapman lawn brilliantly described the in-flight swift as being “about the size of a hang loose,” shaking a shaka at his teenaged charges, who all totally got it.
All swifts are well named because they are among the fastest of all birds, cigar-shaped and no nonsense. Vaux’s do everything in flight — eat, drink, gather nest materials and even sleep — hence the local Chapman chimney documentary’s title On the Wing.
The reason a school chimney comes into play during fall migration is kind of an any-old-port-in-a-storm situation. The birds congregate in roosts before they bail for good winter nesting territory in Central and South America, and an ample supply of spicier bugs — their main food. The birds’ preferred evening roost site is a big snag (a dead, standing tree) in an old-growth forest but, as these snags get turned into artisanal benches or craft microbrew paddles, the swifts use chimneys as replacement sites.
With Your Own Eyes
Want to see it in person? The first three weeks of September offer the best Vaux’s viewing, but from the end of August to the first week of October you’ll likely see something worthwhile. Get there an hour before sunset and bring something to sit on and a non-obnoxious snack—I’m looking at you, Egg Salad. Chapman Elementary School is west of NW 25th Avenue, between NW Pettygrove and NW Raleigh. Don’t even try to park right near the school. Just don’t. Ride your bike and/or take the streetcar, which stops two blocks away. Or, park by Ken’s Bakery on NW 21st and Flanders and grab a latte and a snack worth eating for the mile walk. By the time you get to Chapman, you’ll want to move to Portland.
It’s a recent phenomenon, and the notion is that the swifts cling to the inside of the chimney in the thousands to stay warm in the cool fall evenings and to cash in on some safety in numbers before their epic journey. Their wee feet might be shite for perching on branches, but they can cling to vertical chimney walls like the dickens. They’re the Chris Sharma of the avian world, minus the chalk bag and wicked abs, of course.
I even overheard an amazing anecdote from years ago in Washington where a small colony of swifts broke into a ski store, setting off the alarm. The ornery owner came in to find hundreds of tiny sleeping swifts fanned up and down the tips of the store’s Olin Mark VIs and Fischer Cut 70s, splayed out like iron filings on the edges of a magnet.
“Normally we hear the story about how encroaching development is stressing wildlife populations, which is often the case,” explains Joe Liebezeit, Audubon’s avian conservation program manager in Portland. “But with Vaux’s swifts, human structures…actually provide a safe harbour for this species as they make their epic migrations south. . . . As ancient forests have been drastically reduced across the Pacific Northwest due to logging, chimneys are becoming increasingly important for nesting and roosting during migration.”
Normally we hear the story about how encroaching development is stressing wildlife populations, but with vaux’s swifts, human structures actually provide a safe harbour for this species as they make their epic migrations south.” — Joe Liebezeit
Indeed, the kids and staff of Chapman contributed to the greater good once the swifts were discovered back in the 80s. The problem was the swifts showed up for school at the exact same time as the kids, so the mammals chose to leave the furnace unlit and freeze until mid-October when the birds bailed for warmer climes. On the lawn of Chapman, adults pass on their swift love and lore (to kids playing Angry Birds on mom’s phone), telling their young about the shivering, bird-loving children in big parkas in the 80s and 90s. In 2001, the Audubon Society of Portland, a very active chapter established in 1902, led a fundraising effort to convert Chapman to natural gas and decommission the old 1925 brick chimney for the swifts’ exclusive use. Quite a bird house.
“It could be next to a landfill or a fivemile walk out in the woods,” observes Chris Downie, 33, a science teacher watching the show with his Scappoose High School Bird Club.” I am sure it would still draw a lot of attention from birders and other more ambitious non-birders, but the views at Chapman are definitely what make this experience special. Up on the lawn with views of the city in northwest Portland on a warm or crisp September evening is hard to beat.”
Directed By Mother Nature
It bears repeating: you don’t have to give a shit about birds to enjoy the Vaux’s swift roosting at Chapman. Before the birds show up, it’s kind of like a tame fireworks show waiting to start. You’ll see those fashionable 40-something dads Portland seems to churn out at an alarming rate. There’ll be chubby toddlers in skinny jeans and next year’s Dunks. You’ll maybe see an octogenarian birder couple from Eastern Europe who looks oddly out of place. There will be bored high-school students in hoodies and zits wondering how to look cool at a stupid bird thing, OMG.
The way the birds fly away and then come back, somehow doubling their numbers and then disappearing when they change angles, can be deceiving. It’s like they’re flying to some unheard symphony that’s equal parts Flight of the Valkyrie and It’s My Life by Talk Talk. A pair of ne’er-do-wells in Storm Rider jackets lie on their backs, experiencing the enhanced version. There are a few false starts as the birds begin to form a tornado-shaped cloud and then disperse, keeping us eating out of their hand. You hear the word “surreal” non-stop, which is annoying but accurate.
A funny anthropo-ornithological aspect of watching the swifts is the arrival of the predatory birds, typically a Cooper’s hawk or peregrine falcon. It’s not guaranteed — this is nature after all — but raptors are well aware of the avian buffet spread out here every night at sunset, even without Twitter. As Houck of the National Audobon Society explains, “The crowd typically self-selects into two groups: one cheers on the birds of prey while the other section boos the raptors, in support of the swifts.”
Lindsey Malatesta, a lactation consultant, got a raptor show with her month-old son in 2014. “The swifts were a little put off, knowing at least one of them was going down,” she explains. “Finally, they really got going, swirling around, and then came the church group. There was an endless stream of churchgoers onto the AstroTurf as if they just filed off a bus. They found a great spot — right in front of us. Finally the birds really got going and the hawk snagged a swift and started in on his dinner. The grandmother of the church group commented, ‘That’s what nightmares are made of! Watching your friend get eaten as you go to bed for the night!’”
“Last year, our first year, generated a lot of discussion afterwards when a peregrine falcon who was hunting swifts actually slammed into the chimney,” says Downie. “The students [and] crowd were watching this hunt take place almost as if it was a show. The whole crowd was into it, and when the falcon hit the chimney there was a lot of raw emotion. The most remarkable thing was listening to the students’ reactions once they realized that this was real.”
You know what’s real? Seeing a dozen high-school students assembled on a lawn and not a single one of them is looking down at an iPhone. They’re all looking up, like a Watchtower cover.
Once the swifts start their epic descent in unison, it feels like the rising action of a classic Hollywood movie. You can’t help but get caught up in it. You also get the distinct sense that these winged creatures know they’re the stars of the show. The assembled Oregonians stare at the chimney like eager acolytes awaiting divine instructions. It’s a shared moment on par with the final episode of The Sopranos or your first Lord of the Rings movie without a bathroom break.
The swifts begin to make a morphing shape, like film reel of a smokestack run in reverse, as they funnel down the old chimney at an alarming rate.You can’t imagine how all these birds are going to fit in there. But they do. Every night for a month.