It’s like the beginning of a folk tale or maybe a scary bedtime story: On the top of the hill sits a decrepit old schoolhouse, sandy brick crumbling under the weight of decades of disuse. Ivy climbs the walls, mercilessly feeling its way up towards a weak sun, its resilient, snaking roots latching on to each new crack in the brick. A tall brown brick chimney stands tall against the back wall of the building, a sentinel, a remnant of the days when schoolchildren were warmed by the heat of a fire. The surrounding field is dry and parched, weeds climbing up old chain link fences that sag and lean with old age. The windows of the schoolhouse are broken and cobwebs have filled their place, trapping dust inside that is kicked up with the approaching fall wind. The hallways are dark and dingy. No one approaches any longer, no heads are eager to learn, no hands are filled with apples for teachers. Instead, neighbors skirt the property, heads filled with stories of haunted hallways. Their feet are busy, hurrying away. All is still, except for a lone rat hunting the cracked linoleum-floored rooms for old pieces of cheese hidden under metal lockers. All is quiet. Except for once a year. When the Swifts come. Clouds of black, thousands of birds swirling in the sky like an omen, making their nightly descent into the stone chimney to sleep for the night. They swoop through the air for one last evening snack, wings outstretched in flight, before convening into one large vortex, a black gyre of birds being sucked into a spiral, down into the mouth of the chimney. No one knew why the birds came, but they came every year, always choosing that one chimney for their home. And no one knew when they would leave.
OK, OK, that was way creepier than I was planning on. But it makes a good image, yes? Chapman School in NW Portland crumbing with disuse, thousands of birds arriving there annually, unexplained, clouds of them hovering over the school. But I’m not here today to scare you. Rather, just the opposite. I’m here to tell a story of wonder. A story of a natural phenomenon that has attracted thousands of people every year to witness. A story that Portlanders have claimed as their own. The story of the Vaux’s Swift, a Pacific Northwest native bird that enjoy our pleasant summers but escape our wet winters for dryer skies down South. Every September, thousands of Swifts flock to Portland en-route to their annual migration to Central America and Venezuela. They spend much of the daylight hours flying, foraging for winged insects. In fact, they forage, drink, court, collect nesting materials, and copulate all in flight! But when it comes time to rest for the evening, Swifts find roosts inside hollow, sturdy aerial objects. Like trees. Or Chimneys. Chapman Elementary School, located in Northwest Portland, has a chimney located on the West end of the building that used to be used to heat the building. It now lies dormant, but migrating Swifts have found it suitable over the years as a place to roost every night and stay safe from predators. Evidently, they really like the spot, because the Chapman School chimney has become the largest known roost of migrating Swifts in the world! In September, thousands of Portlanders congregate each night of the month to observe the phenomenon of up to 35,000 Vaux’s Swifts flying into their chimney roost for the night.
At first, the sky seems to be filled with clouds of ash, or black snow swirling on the wind. One by one, the Swifts converge for the evening, chomping down on their last insects for the night. The air is filled with the sound of incessant chirping, the tiniest squeaks for the tiniest birds. As an onlooker you can just recognize countless cigar-shaped bodies and flapping wings, the birds flitting Left, then Right in their search for food. And then it happens. Birds gather closer and closer; it’s almost indiscernible, until the tiny specks of black appears as one whirling tornado, a strand of DNA, a whirling gyre, spinning faster and faster around the mouth of the chimney. Minutes pass watching this dizzying spiral, until all at once, without warning, they dive, pouring themselves into the mouth of the chimney. How much room is there in that thing? It’s amazing they all fit. With every dive, the crowd takes a collective breath. We’re all wonder if this same thing happens each the morning as well. Does the chimney erupt every sunrise with the impatient fluttering of thousands upon thousands of birds, exhaling a breath of ash into the sky?
And then the second wave starts. Undetected at first, hovering like a teeming school of fish high in the sky. But the cloud comes closer, a mass of birds, a shimmering Chinese dragon moving in formation against the darkening sky. And then this cloud makes its way into the chimney, sucked like a vacuum. They do this again and again and again. Who are these groups? Did they migrate together? Or are they just companions for the evening? Is it all random, chance, or choice? We can only wonder at the depth of the avian brain.
Sitting on that hill behind Chapman School, laying down on the grass to look into the heavens and watch thousands of birds swirling above you, it’s certainly not a solitary event. With Portland being as it is, a gathering place of tree and animal and bike-minded people, I imagine it’s mobbed every week. Like a sporting match or a fireworks show, people gathered with their hats and jerseys, picnic dinners, and roaming children. One couple was wearing red trucker hats with tiny drawings of flying swifts screen printed on its front. A man in front of me wore a shirt that said “Raptors Rock” on the front and “Swifts Rule” on the back. Children frolicked in between picnic blankets in sun dresses and shorts carrying pieces of cardboard with them. They slid down the hill on homemade sleds and kicked soccer balls back and forth on the field below. When a Falcon showed its face (and talons) at the event, the crowd took a collective breath of awe, cheering on the Swifts when they chased the falcon away and boo-ing the predator. Twice. The third time was the charm when the raptor dove straight into a spiral of chimney-seeking Swifts and snagged a bird out of the fray. Luckily, once he got his dinner, Mr. Peregrine left for the evening.
I couldn’t help but think about Colin Meloy’s Wildwood when watching this incredible natural phenomenon. Forest Park (or the Impassible Wilderness) laid to our Left in its expanse of trees, stretching North as far as the eye could see. A teeming mass of black birds whirled in the sky above our heads. In a different circumstance, in a different chapter, we could have all been Prue, seeing her baby brother abducted by a murder of crows right in front of her eyes. It’s very rare that we get to see something as dramatic and large-scale as this Vaux’s Swift gathering in the natural world. To see animals do what they do, uninhibited. Right in front of our eyes, with hundreds of people accompanying us. Though Vaux’s Swifts inherently prefer to roost in hollow tree snags deep in old growth forests, the truth is that very few of these natural habitats exist anymore. We will hopefully all do our part to restore educate ourselves about these valuable ecosystems, but we can make-do at this present time by trying to understand our avian friends just that much bit more. By going to see them, appreciate them, wonder at them, cheer for them, smile with them as they go to bed. And going to bed ourselves just that much more inspired.
For more information about Vaux’s Swifts and Portland’s role in their migration, here are three sources you can visit: