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):
Time To Watch: early to late September, one hour before sunset
Viewing Locations (Chimneys):