Tyson Gillard | 09.07.2013

In 1982 the students of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon wore their hats and warm coats into their classrooms; they bundled up at their desks and wore their scarfs into the library.  They had opted to keep the furnace turned off to forego heat because during that September of 1982, for the first time ever, a species of bird on their southerly migration decided to make a short stop on the school grounds.

The type of bird is a Vaux’s swift, and historically they’d fly from Canada in the Pacific Northwest down to Central and South America making little pit stops along the way in hollowed-out old-growth trees.  They like to roost in protective darkness in massive groups up to 30,000 birds.  But if you fly from Canada down to Central America there’s not a lot of old-growth forests anymore, so the birds had to improvise… which is how they found the massive chimney at the Chapman school.

For three weeks or so in September the swifts return, and at dusk after a day of foraging they congregate and begin an hour-long dance, flying in tight formations and sweeping funnels until finally each of the 30,000 birds have flown into the chimney, made foothold in the mortar, and hunkered down for a night’s rest.

Crowds of people come, they bring picnics and wine, binoculars and cameras… there’s a guy making balloon animals.  Kids slide down the hill on cardboard sleds, people are smiling.  And they’re here to see the birds, and to repeat that lovely story of children wearing mittens into math class.

Vaux’s Swift Facts (by Tyson Gillard):

  • Species: Vaux’s swift (Chaetura vauxi)
  • Name:  Pronounced “vawksiz” , they are named after the Englishman, William S. Vaux
  • Size: 4-5 inches in length (smallest of the four swift species in North America)
  • Diet: Flying insects (e.g., beetles, wasps, termites) with each eating up to 20,000 insects per day
  • Habit: Vaux’s don’t have a back talon, so they can’t perch on tree limbs like other birds.  Similar to hummingbirds, they spend nearly the entirety of the day flying.

Time To Watch: early to late September, one hour before sunset

Viewing Locations (Chimneys):


  • Chapman Elementary School + Wallace Park (1445 NW 26th Ave., Portland, OR 97210).  On-street parking will be limited near the school.  Additional parking for the event is available each evening at Montgomery Park, six blocks away (2701 NW Vaughn St.).  Max swift count: 35,000
  • Old Oregon City High School – Jackson Campus (1306 12th St., Oregon City, OR 97045)
  • University of Oregon, Agate Hall (1787 Agate St. (Columbia Alley), Eugene, OR 97403)
  • Christmas Presence (644 NW Harriman St., Bend, OR 97701).


  • Wagner Center (former Frank Wagner Elementary)(115 Dickinson Rd., Monroe, WA 98272). Max swift count: 140,000
  • Old Customs House (Harrison Ave., between Cherry St. + Sumas Ave., Sumas, WA 98295. Max swift count: 8,000
  • Old School House (SE 252nd St., Selleck, WA 98051).  Max swift count: 37,000


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