Vaux's Swifts

Vaux's Swift Life

Vaux's swifts are shaped so well for fast flying that twice a year, they migrate between the Pacific Northwest and Central America or Venezuela. They are even able to sleep while in flight. But when these travelers have to take a longer rest, they don't land in trees. Their feet, tucked in beneath feathers so as not to cause drag during fast flight, are too short to latch on to branches. Instead, birds in the Pacific Northwest stop off at an unlikely place in September and October: an elementary school in downtown Portland: Chapman School.

Even more unlikely, they all crowd into a furnace chimney like aerodynamic, 5 ounce Santa Clauses. The immediate question, of course, is what happens as it becomes cold. Doesn't the school need to turn on the furnace? Teachers and students had been afraid to, even as Portland's wet climate dipped into uncomfortable temperatures in the fall. With the the help of a fundraising campaign and contributions by the Audubon Society of Portland and Portland Public Schools, the school converted the heating system to natural gas while preserving the chimney solely as a place for the birds to roost at night.

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Now the whole community turns out to watch the birds, almost like descending fireworks, swirl into the chimney at dusk on September evenings. They form a large dark spiral and somehow make an orderly procession down into the chimney. Their feet are adapted to clinging on to vertical walls like those they find inside. Once hidden within the cylinder, they find warmth and safety in numbers.

Vaux swifts swirling around Chapman School, taken by Sherry Smith, Portland, OR, 9/2016

The protection of the chimney is so successful that Chapman School is the world's largest known colony of Vaux's Swifts. As many as 40,000 birds have rested there in one night on their way south for their winter migration.

Swifts move so fast that they are difficult to photograph but fun to watch. Their crescent-shaped bodies are built for speed. Unlike their relatives, swallows, they never perch (but can cling to walls). They are even able to grab nesting twigs while flying without stopping. Their name suits them.

A Quest to Find Vaux's Swifts

Chapman School swift site, taken by Sherry Smith, Portland, OR, 9/2016

Simply visit Chapman School and nearby Wallace Park in Portland, OR, on a September evening to see this remarkable avian coordinated flight pattern. It is best to arrive one hour before sunset. As many as 2000 visitors (that is people) may gather to watch, but there is plenty of space to spread around. Interpretive signs explain what is happening, and often local Audubon Society volunteers are present to answer questions.