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A Home for the Swifts

September 11, 2013
Mrs C. and I weren’t the only ones looking for a new home in Portland Oregon in the early 1980s. Winging up from Central America for a feast of flying insects, a cigar-shaped Vaux Swift was desperately seeking a new late summer home. The hollow tree serving as a roost for generations had been toppled by a recent storm. With thousands of hungry swifts soon to arrive, this scout must have been desperate to find an alternative roosting site.


In early September of 1980 a student from Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland was treated to an awesome spectacle. The darkening sky was thick with Vaux Swifts, darting about and gorging on a bug banquet of beetles, wasps, termites and flying ants. The boy was mesmerized when the random flight patterns of thousand of birds coalesced into a wide sweeping motion. Then, as if motivated by a single thought, this tornado of feathers darkened the sky before diving into the 1920s brick chimney rising above the school. With an enviable display of organizational ability, this nation of birds thirty-five thousand strong, descended into the chimney in less than fifteen minutes.


The Chapman student, fretting over what would happen when the chimney’s furnace was fired up, brought the birds to the attention of school authorities. Eventually, a vote was held and the students at Chapman School elected to wear coats and scarves to class rather than turn on the furnace. The swifts remained for three weeks. One day toward the end of September they left en masse for the return flight to Central America.


In the coming years the swifts returned to the Chapman chimney. Around 2003 the Audubon Society of Portland, ranking this as the largest concentration of swifts in North America, sponsored fundraisers for an alternate school heating system. The chimney is now maintained solely for the use of the birds.


In 1985 Mrs. C. and I, unaware of the show these birds put on in late summer, happened to be in Northwest Portland hunting for a larger home. Our realtor showed us a beautiful Colonial that had everything we wanted except a reasonable price. As we walked away I turned and noticed the giant brick chimney rising above an old school on the far side of a grassy field. “What an eyesore,” I mumbled. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at that ugly smokestack.”


Our realtor smiled and said, “You’d be surprised.”


A few weeks later an article in the paper caught Mrs. C’s attention. “Evidently a big colony of swifts has returned to Chapman School,” she read. “Hundreds of people picnic on the grass and watch the birds flock into the chimney for the night. Says here it’s very interesting.”


So we packed a picnic one evening and drove to Chapman School where several thousand people were watching the skies and waiting for the magical moment when the swifts joined into a single cloud of birds for the descent into the chimney. The sight was awesome, especially when Peregrine Falcons and Cooper’s Hawks charged the swarm and emerged with swifts captured in their talons. With the enthusiasm of Romans watching lions devour Christians in the Coliseum, spectators roared and shouted, particularly when small patrols of birds broke away to attack the hawks and free their companions.


Today, this spectacle is viewed by thousands, making it necessary to arrive early to find a grassy place to sit. I’ve seen the Vaux Swifts several times. As I stare at that old brick chimney the irony of my words haunt me:


"What an eyesore. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at that ugly smokestack!"









Amazing! I love that they've accommodated the birds so well. Sometimes when we're in Austin, we see the nightly event of a huge amount bats pouring out of their lair near downtown. I don't ever want to get too close to that, though...
By: Shelly on September 11, 2013
I would love to see that! Might want to park my car a few blocks away.
By: Cranky on September 11, 2013
What an amazing sight it must be. I'd love to see it. I had never heard of it, and it does exercise my brain to imagine how that number of even tiny birds can make a home in a mere chimney! Can't stop thinking about it actually. This is a really good post.
By: Jenny Woolf on September 11, 2013
They picked a good spot with the school. It would be hell on a homeowner to have to deal with the birds and all those onlookers. And if it had been a factory in use they'd have probably been cooked.
By: PT Dilloway on September 11, 2013
That is pretty awesome. Glad to see some things in nature are still respected.
By: David Walston on September 11, 2013
A fantastic story! I'm surprised that it isn't widely wildly known or perhaps it is simply a case of my being one of the few who doesn't.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 11, 2013
Amazing story! I'd love to see them in person.
By: Kevin Routh on September 11, 2013
I love this story!
By: The Bug on September 11, 2013
Wow. It must be amazing to see all those birds and to know that something built by man is helpful to them.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on September 11, 2013
that is so awesome. that they saved the swifts and turned to other heating methods...
By: TexWisGirl on September 11, 2013
Fascinating--I'd never heard of this before!!
By: fishducky on September 11, 2013
Just shows there's always a way to live with wildlife, if you have enough creativity to find it.
By: mimi on September 11, 2013
Fascinating! I'm so glad the chimney was kept safe for the birds. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 11, 2013
What an amazing sight it must be and a real privilege to watch. Thanks for sharing this, Stephen, it's an interesting post.
By: Sharon Bradshaw on September 11, 2013
Believe it or not, I have heard of this chimney. It's nice to get an account from somebody who is actually there.
By: Red on September 11, 2013
I had no idea! Our middle school has bats in the attic. Every now and then, the kids find one hanging under a cafeteria table. That is the signal for the custodian to grab his fishing dip-net. Seems that bats are somehow protected in Missouri, last I heard. Nobody's been bitten, nor have any students been subjected to bat-infested hair.
By: Val on September 11, 2013
What a heartwarming story about finding an alternative heating system so that the birds can use the chimney! This would be so cool to snap pictures of.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 11, 2013
Sometimes we speak too soon. That's an awesome eye sore. I haven't heard about it, but I'd love to witness that. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on September 11, 2013
I just love this story!
By: John on September 12, 2013
Wonderful! Friends of ours in France invited us over to dinner one night to watch a 'spectacle'. It turned out to be the gathering of thousands of swifts as the swooped and soared their way across the sky for about 30 minutes -- every evening at the same time for several weeks.
By: The Broad on September 12, 2013
Great story! Thank you so much for sharing.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on September 12, 2013
How great is it that the spectacle of nature dwarfs the pablum from Hollywood? Awesome.
By: Al Penwasser on September 12, 2013
I love this! I'd never heard of this before. Thanks for sharing it with us. It sounds like a great item for a bucket list.
By: Nancy Felt on September 12, 2013
What a wonderful sight that must be. I love to hear about it from your experience and I especially love that everyone has taken the birds into priority consideration.
By: Hilary on September 12, 2013
I loved that the school worked out a way to protect the birds. Such a show of compassion. Actually, I liked the whole story until the part that the Falcons and Hawks dined on some of the Swifts. I am not a big fan of the "survival of the fittest." Still ...the pictures of the birds rising out of that chimney are awesome.
By: Cheryl P. on September 13, 2013
Ahhhh! We have swifts in our town, and also in a community three hours west of us. I have seen them come in to roost, and it brings tears to my eyes. It's definitely one of nature's wondrous doings. It's also very touching that those students chose to be chilly in order to protect the birds. Kids often have incredible empathy. I really enjoyed this post, CC.
By: jenny_o on September 13, 2013
I would love to see this. My Daddy (87 years old) is in the process of building a bat house. I love this story. Thank you for sharing it with me.
By: Jackie on September 18, 2013
came back to say congrats on your POTW!
By: TexWisGirl on September 19, 2013
Totally amazing sight to enjoy, I may have to look for more info
By: Out on the prairie on September 19, 2013

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