Swifts Leave Chapman School Chimney in October
PORTLAND'S SWIFT WATCH
When: Dusk (about 6:30 p.m.) in September
Where: Grassy Bank by Chapman School
NW 26th & Pettygrove, Portland, OR
Who: EVERYBODY - it's free fun for young and old and anybody in-between! Many evenings
Audubon Society Swift Watch
Volunteers are on site to answer questions.
MORE: For further information on the Chapman Swifts, please contact the
Portland Audubon Society's Swift Watch
ALSO WATCH for screenings of the 2007 documentary,
On the Wing produced at Chapman by Real Earl Productions.
EVERY SUMMER thousands of tiny Vaux swifts swoop into Portland, Oregon, to spend
several months feasting on flying insects during the day and roosting in the tall chimney at Chapman
School at night. NW Portland is a regular vacation stopover for swifts during their
annual migration from Alaska/Canada to Mexico/South America.
Historically, migrating swifts roosted in big hollow trees they found in Oregon's
old growth forests, but now, thanks to logging and urban sprawl, most of those trees
are gone. In 1994, some adventurous swift scouted out new digs in the brick chimney atop
Chapman Elementary School. The little birds, 4-5" ("cigars with wings"), like the rough surfaces and
cracks in the bricks that give them lots of convenient toe holds,
plus the chimney is big enough to accomodate between 20,000 to 40,000 birds.
The school children and their teachers welcomed the swifts in their chimney. They
researched the swifts and other migratory birds, drew and painted pictures of their feathered
friends, and even elected the swift as the school mascot. As the days grew colder in late
September and October, students wore their coats to class so that administrators could
postpone starting up the
school furnace until after the swifts left the chimney to fly south. At last, the Portland Public
Schools and the Audubon Society teamed up to raise grant money to stabilize the chimney
for the swifts and to install a new gas heating system for the school. The renovation cost
approximately $60,000 (that's not chicken feed!), and was funded by the Collins Foundation, the Metro Central
Enhancement Grant Committee, and the Autzen Foundation.
Fourteen years have gone by, and the swifts are still summer celebrities in Portland.
If you wander over to Chapman in the early evening, you'll find a crowd of spectators
sitting on a grassy bank overlooking the school. Some bring their picnic suppers, some
bring champagne, many have binoculars and cameras. All ages come to watch the
swifts as they congregate and prepare to call it a day. At first, there are just a few of the little
birds circling the chimney, dipping close to the mouth of the chimney stack, then abruptly pulling up and
flying away to repeat the cycle. As more and more birds arrive, from a distance, they look like
a cloud of bees, wheeling round and round the chimney. Other birds - predators - also appear.
A hawk sits on the rim of the chimney, watching, waiting, then suddenly strikes and carries
off his unlucky prey. Occasionally, the tables are turned, and a gang of irate swifts attack the
hawk, driving him away, at least for a short time.
The flock grows and grows until the cloud of birds turns black, and still they circle. What are
they waiting for? Maybe they're waiting for late arrivals? Maybe they are still catching insects
as they fly? (Swifts eat in the air, and during their migration, sleep midair, too). Maybe they're
waiting for the air in the chimney to be the right temperature, or for the setting sunlight to fall
at a certain angle? The Audubon Society has put an information kiosk in the schoolyard; perhaps it
explains what finally triggers the birds' descent.
Gradually the circling picks up speed. The birds fly several rapid last laps, and then.....Swooosh!
They dive down the chimney and disappear. The sky is suddenly empty, blank.
The sun is going down, too, and evening is here. Time to go home. The swifts will stay a few more weeks,
until the days get shorter and the weather gets colder. Then mid-October or so, possibly when we fall back to standard
time, they will fly away to winter in Mexico.
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