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Return of the Swifts

September 19, 2016

Mid September has arrived, which means the swifts are here but will soon depart.




Mrs C. and I weren’t the only ones looking for a new home in Portland Oregon in the early 1980s. Winging up from Central America for a feast of flying insects, a cigar-shaped Vaux Swift was desperately seeking a new late summer home. The hollow tree serving as a roost for generations had been toppled by a recent storm. With thousands of hungry swifts soon to arrive, this scout must have been desperate to find an alternative roosting site.


In early September of 1980 a student from Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland was treated to an awesome spectacle. The darkening sky was thick with Vaux Swifts, darting about and gorging on a bug banquet of beetles, wasps, termites and flying ants. The boy was mesmerized when the random flight patterns of thousands of birds coalesced into a wide sweeping motion. Then, as if motivated by a single thought, this tornado of feathers darkened the sky before diving into the 1920s brick chimney rising above the school. With an enviable display of organizational ability, this nation of birds thirty-five thousand strong, descended into the chimney in less than fifteen minutes.


The Chapman student, fretting over what would happen when the chimney’s furnace was fired up, brought the birds to the attention of school authorities. Eventually, a vote was held and the students at Chapman School elected to wear coats and scarves to class rather than turn on the furnace. The swifts remained for three weeks. One day toward the end of September they left en masse for the return flight to Central America.


In the coming years the swifts returned to the Chapman chimney. Around 2003 the Audubon Society of Portland, ranking this as the largest concentration of swifts in North America, sponsored fundraisers for an alternate school heating system. The chimney is now maintained solely for the use of the birds.


In 1985 Mrs. C. and I, unaware of the show these birds put on in late summer, happened to be in Northwest Portland hunting for a larger home. Our realtor showed us a beautiful Colonial that had everything we wanted except a reasonable price. As we walked away I turned and noticed the giant brick chimney rising above an old school on the far side of a grassy field. “What an eyesore,” I mumbled. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at that ugly smokestack.”


Our realtor smiled and said, “You’d be surprised.”


A few weeks later an article in the paper caught Mrs. C’s attention. “Evidently a big colony of swifts has returned to Chapman School,” she read. “Hundreds of people picnic on the grass and watch the birds flock into the chimney for the night. Says here it’s very interesting.”


So we packed a picnic one evening and drove to Chapman School where several thousand people were watching the skies and waiting for the magical moment when the swifts joined into a single cloud of birds for the descent into the chimney. The sight was awesome, especially when Peregrine Falcons and Cooper’s Hawks charged the swarm and emerged with swifts captured in their talons. With the enthusiasm of Romans watching lions devour Christians in the Coliseum, spectators roared and shouted, particularly when small patrols of birds broke away to attack the hawks and free their companions.


Today, this spectacle is viewed by thousands, making it necessary to arrive early to find a grassy place to sit. I’ve seen the Vaux Swifts several times. As I stare at that old brick chimney the irony of my words haunt me:


"What an eyesore. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at that ugly smokestack!"
















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Swifts and fish are just posers aren't they? :) I mean that in the "Portland--let's keep everything weird" way. Posers all do the same thing. They dress alike, behave alike, and flock together in huge numbers practicing "group think." There's an irony I'm noting here: a community that prides itself on the unique stops to admire an animal that behaves exactly like everything else in its group.
By: Michael Offutt on September 19, 2016
How cool!
By: The Bug on September 19, 2016
That's a lot of birds. In Michigan in early summer or late spring we get swarms of "fish flies" these big brown flying insects. You go to a gas station and they're all over the pumps and stuff. It's not nearly as pretty.
By: PT Dilloway on September 19, 2016
That's really cool they kept the chimney just for the birds. I bet it's quite the sight.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 19, 2016
Something to put on anyone's bucket list!
By: Tabor on September 19, 2016
Very cool story, nature never fails to amaze, and how fortunate they did not turn on the furnace.
By: cranky on September 19, 2016
Fascinating story! I bet it's really noisy too.
By: LL Cool Joe on September 19, 2016
How neat that the birds have their own piece of real estate!!
By: fishducky on September 19, 2016
That would be a sight worth going early to get a good grassy spot.
By: messymimi on September 19, 2016
Wow! Terrific event!
By: Tom Cochrun on September 19, 2016
What a delightful story. How neat that the school refused to fire up the furnace and everyone wore coats. If I lived there, I'd be right on that hill.
By: Arkansas Patti on September 19, 2016
very cool
By: Ellen Abbott on September 19, 2016
a wonder of nature.
By: TexWisGirl on September 19, 2016
I'm always amazed when I see a huge flock of birds flying intricate patterns but staying tightly together. They must have an amazing built-in radar system.
By: Catalyst on September 19, 2016
Being a birder, I've heard this story before but it's good to hear it again.
By: red Kline on September 19, 2016
Coats and scarves? It must get really cold really early in Portland. Those birds were gone by the end of September.
By: Val on September 19, 2016
I'd forgotten all about Chapman School's Swifts!
By: Kathe W. on September 20, 2016
That must be quite a show! How thoughtful of those students to accommodate the swifts all those years ago, it turned into a unique local tradition. I enjoy stories like these. Thanks for sharing!
By: Chris on September 20, 2016
35,000? Wow. This sounds and looks much more exciting than a Hitchcock movie. And that's precious that the kids and school made accommodations so as to not harm the birds.
By: Robyn Engel on September 20, 2016
That's a remarkable story. R
By: Rick Watson on September 21, 2016

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