Huge crowds flock to a Portland school to watch thousands of Vaux's swifts funnel into a makeshift roost.
As interest in the swift spectacle at Chapman soared through social and conventional media and word of mouth, the school grew so fond of its flying guests that it pretty much adopted them, choosing the swift as the school mascot. So each September, even when classroom temperatures fell as low as 50 degrees, the school’s administrators turned off its furnace for the birds’ benefit, and the students donned sweaters and sweatshirts. In 2000 Portland Audubon collaborated with school fundraisers and corporate sponsors to raise $60,000. A year later the school switched from oil to gas and built a new chimney. The old brick chimney now belongs solely to the swifts.
Personifying the civic pride, Scott Bowler, a science education consultant who taught private school in town for 28 years, has been sitting on this same hill on and off for the past 18. He remembers when a couple of dozen people amounted to a big turnout. Searching for something comparable, he gushed about the snow geese, in flocks of tens of thousands, in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon, 300-plus miles away. “I just think this is a unique spectacle,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”
Meanwhile, capitalism and conservation were mixing across the street. Freckle-faced Jack Clevenger, 12, had set up a table in his front yard to sell beverages, $1 cookies and brownies, and the children’s story Swifty’s BigFlight, written by his mother, Lee Jackson. In her delightful little book, Jackson describedthe sky above as “a maze ofblack birds, tiny crescentmoons twisting and turning alldirections in the wind.”
Of course, drawing crowds to witness those crescent moons does have its downsides. For people living across the street, it’s as if the carnival has come to town. There are crowds, traffic congestion, cigarette butts, and litter on their lawns. Audubon is working with the neighborhood, the school, Portland parks, and the city police to improve traffic enforcement and to post park rangers onsite during the roosting season. Their aim is to erase any trace of the visiting hordes.
One item a lot of visitors do bring home with them is a Vaux’s swift brochure on “living with urban wildlife,” published by Portland Audubon. The group’s volunteers—“Swifties”—man a busy table covered with bird paraphernalia and literature while answering questions and repeating some of the advice in the brochure, such as what to do if you find a young swift in your fireplace.
This night, shortly before people prepared to leave, the last swift plunged into the chimney. And as the spectators folded up their blankets and packed their coolers, a symphony of high-pitched and fast chattering overhead fell to a hush. The swifts settled in for the night, snug and safe in the old brick chimney of a school where they finished at the top of their class.
Range: Breeds from southeastern Alaska south to northern California and east to western Montana. This population winters mainly in Mexico and Central America. Closely related forms (regarded as belonging to the same species) are permanent residents in parts of Mexico and Central America, and in northern Venezuela.
Habitat: Feeds on flying insects caught in the air above any habitat but shows a preference for forested areas. North American birds breed in mature or old-growth forest, either coniferous or mixed, where large hollow snags and dead trees serve as nest sites.
Status: Numbers are difficult to census, but specific surveys in Oregon as well as Breeding Bird Survey results elsewhere suggest a significant decline in numbers in North America since 1980. Little information is available about tropical populations.
Threats/Outlook: For the populations in North America, cutting of old-growth forest reduces the availability of nest sites. Roosting sites for migrants are often in old chimneys, and these stopover sites may be lost when chimneys are capped or torn down. Growing public awareness can help to solve the latter problem, but long-term survival will also depend on protecting old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.—Kenn Kaufman
This story originally ran in the July-August 2013 issue as "Tornado Watch.”