Huge crowds flock to a Portland school to watch thousands of Vaux's swifts funnel into a makeshift roost.
Some call it the “happening.” Each September thousands of people gather at night behind the Chapman School in Portland, Oregon, to delight in what is perhaps the world’s largest known tornado of birds pouring out of the sky. Wave after wave of Vaux’s swifts roll in like squadrons on a mission, funneling into the school’s tall brick chimney in giant vortexes. Counters have estimated anywhere from 1,700 to 35,000 birds at a time.
At twilight one evening last September, a thousand people came lugging coolers, unfolding picnic blankets, and carrying binoculars. The crowd was so big it spilled into the school’s front lawn (a less-than-ideal vantage point—kind of like watching a concert from the back of the stage). “It’s free. It’s cool. Like going to the movies,” declared Meryl Redisch, Audubon Society of Portland executive director, who this night joined the legions camped out for the group’s Swift Watch. She proclaimed the event a pure celebration of birds, a living, breathing testament to avian joy for young and old, serious birder or complete novice. “It’s a great introduction to a natural phenomenon. It’s so impressive, beautiful, and mysterious.”
Of course, nature’s beauty is almost always balanced with brutality, as it is here on most nights, when a peregrine falcon, one of a pair living on nearby Fremont Bridge, rolls in. The swifts hadn’t even begun their descent when the aerial display overhead took a dramatic turn. Jaws hung open as the crowd watched the peregrine launch its assault. But the swifts, with their rapid flight and amazing agility, outmaneuvered him. “In setting up an attack, a peregrine often makes a wide arc over the neighborhood high up, flying out of view, then reappearing with turbo thrusters fully engaged,” said Steve Engel, adult education program manager for Portland Audubon. Again the masked intruder swooped in; again it came up empty-taloned.
Finally, on its fourth sortie, the lightning-fast raptor, which can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour when diving, nabbed its dinner. There was polite—if, in some quarters, guilty—applause. The swifts may be endearing, but the falcons, recovering from near extinction, have to eat, too.
Vaux’s (rhymes with foxes) swifts are small, dark, and speedy. They are the western counterpart to the better-known chimney swift, and the smallest of the four swift species in North America. (The black swift and the white-throated swift are the other two.) From a distance they’ve been compared to flying cigars with wings. In fact, they are sometimes mistaken for bats because of their appearance at dusk and the way they move, especially when snatching insects out of the air.
Scientists have determined that the birds migrate 4,000-plus miles along the Pacific Flyway in mid-September, from western Canada to Mexico, Central America, and northern Venezuela, making pit stops on the West Coast to rest and refuel. Chapman is one of the last roosting sites in the Portland metro area. “We do not know how many swifts have been coming for years,” said Redisch. “Why don’t they go to other small chimneys? How do they know when to fly? Does something happen? One of them says, ‘It’s time, you know.’ I love the fact that we can’t answer that, and that people can come up with their own answers.”
The birds began their ritual stop here in the late 1980s after losing much of their native roosting habitat in old-growth Douglas fi r forests with large hollow trees, living and dead. Overall the species has proved adaptable, much like the chimney swift, though populations are declining throughout its range.
Chimneys offer the best available substitutes for hollow trees. The communal roosting serves several purposes, among them providing safety from predators and maintaining warmth. The swifts grip the chimney walls with Velcro-like feet. Sadly, though, the species cannot always catch a break in chimneys either; today’s buildings are often built without them.