By Jim Rouse
Portland, Oregon is known for its scenery, spectacular gardens, and showy roses. But these are not the only nature shows in town. On a cool, early-fall evening, a crowd of over 100 people has gathered on the grassy hill overlooking Chapman Elementary School on the west side of Portland. They are standing around or sitting on blankets. Others have brought chairs to sit in. Pizza and soft drinks are being sold. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the start of the evening’s show.
Slowly the cast begins to assemble in the skies above. Migrating Vaux’s (pronounced “vox”) Swifts are arriving to spend their night at the school. Every year in the fall when they migrate over Portland, the gray-brown swifts, which look like little cigars with wings, spend the night clinging to the inside of the tall brick chimney that used to service the school’s heating system.
Tonight, there is a different twist on the story. As the swifts gather in ever-increasing numbers, a villain in the form of a bird-eating Cooper’s Hawk appears on the scene. The blue-gray hawk perches on the rim of the chimney in hopes of being able to grab his supper. The audience boos the villain. By this time, hundreds of swifts have darkened the sky. The chattering swifts swirl over the chimney in a counterclockwise direction, coming lower and lower. A few swifts try to enter the chimney. Then the villain strikes. The hawk grabs an unfortunate swift trying to enter the chimney and takes off with his meal to a nearby tree.
The crowd starts yelling for the swifts to hurry and get in the chimney in case the hawk returns. But it is not yet dark, and the swifts are not listening.
Then the hawk returns and again lands on the lip of the chimney. The audience loudly boos his arrival. Now, thousands of swifts are swirling overhead as the sky darkens. More swifts try to enter the chimney, and another one is caught and taken off by the hawk.
The crowd again cries out and urges the swifts to get in the chimney before the hawk returns. It is now almost dark. As if someone has pulled the plug in a tub of water to drain it, a black cloud of swifts swirls counterclockwise down into the chimney. In less than five minutes, there is not a swift remaining in sight. One of the great spectacles in avian migration is over for the night.
Volunteers from the Portland Audubon Society Swift Watch program are on hand to explain the phenomenon. They have two Vaux’s Swift specimens preserved in clear plastic so spectators can see the birds up close. The volunteers assure us that no swifts were harmed to make the displays. The specimens are dead swifts retrieved from the ground where they fell. According to the volunteers, the swifts have been coming to the school chimney since the late 1980s. The volunteers explain that originally the schoolchildren would suffer through cold days with no heat so as not to endanger the roosting swifts. In 2001, the school’s heating system was converted from oil to natural gas, but the old chimney was preserved for the swifts.
If you should find yourself in Portland in the early fall, it is well worth an evening to stop by Chapman Elementary School to witness this impressive nature show, even if you are not a hard-core birdwatcher. Swift Watch takes place during the entire month of September. More information is available at www.audubonportland.org/local-birding/swiftwatch.
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