How tiny Vaux’s Swifts create a giant annual spectacle

Vaux's Swifts
Vaux’s Swifts descend into the chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. Photo by planephotoman.

In a delightful essay in our December 2016 issue, Maeve Kim, a Vermont birder, teacher, musician, and writer, describes the many ways that birding can amuse, delight, embarrass, horrify, baffle, and inspire awe. Below is an excerpt. In it, Maeve tells about the giant spectacle created by the tiny Vaux’s Swifts that gather every year at a Portland, Oregon, school.

Starting in the 1980s, a tall chimney at Chapman Elementary School, in Northwest Portland, Oregon, has served as a night roost for huge numbers of Vaux’s Swifts. The world’s smallest swift, Vaux’s breeds at high elevations over a large range stretching from Venezuela to Alaska. The northern populations migrate to Central America for the winter. Each September, thousands and thousands roost at the school.

From the beginning, their annual visit fascinated the students and their teachers, but there was a downside. When school personnel turned off the heat to keep the chimney safe for the birds, the temperature in some classrooms dropped into the fifties. The Audubon Society of Portland teamed up with local donors and corporate sponsors to raise money for an alternate heating system, keeping the classrooms warm and leaving the chimney for the birds.

Swift nights have become a popular neighborhood spectacle. People come from all around, many with blankets and coolers and picnic baskets. They sit on the school’s sloping lawn and chat, laugh, eat, and wait for dusk. Finally, a few small birds show up. Then a few hundred. Then thousands.

Crowd pleasers

The swifts join well-organized formations. Sometimes they fly huge flat circles many yards from the chimney, looping out over the crowd and filling the air with their constant chittering. Sometimes they make a whirling funnel. Sometimes they weave complicated figure-eight patterns, drawing enthusiastic applause from the crowd. When one or two Peregrine Falcons arrive, the rooting section cheers, claps, and whistles. The raptors scatter the swifts and break up the neat formations, but the little birds regroup almost immediately.

When it’s almost completely dark, the swifts form a funnel cloud that extends far up into the sky, whirling and whirling above the chimney (pictured above). The funnel tightens, and the birds move faster and faster. More and more fall from the bottom of the funnel into the chimney. Finally, the cloud condenses and narrows, pouring all remaining swifts into the chimney as the crowd cheers. — Maeve Kim

You can watch a video of the spectacle here.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2016 issue of BirdWatching, which will go on sale at Barnes & Noble and other newsstands in early November.

eBird maps show Vaux’s Swift locations in winter and spring.

David Sibley: How to tell Vaux’s Swift from Chimney Swift.

Maeve Kim contemplates the differences between watching birds and getting birds.

 

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