102 week 37 journal
The Chapman Swifts
The Vaux (pronounced VOX) Swift is a little bird with a big following in Portland Oregon. Here they are called The Chapman Swifts, because every year as they migrate from the Northwest to their winter home in Central America and Venezuela they spend a couple of weeks in the Chapman Elementary School chimney. Every night, the largest known roost of migrating Swifts puts on a show as they all swirl around in a large, loose circular pattern that gets tighter and tighter, like water circling a drain, until one bird finally dives into the chimney and then the rest follow suit. These little birds are described by the Audubon Society of Portland as appearing “like small, dark, fast flying cigars with wings.” They are 4-5 inches long with crescent shaped wings that beat with “swift, rapid, bat-like movements.” They don’t “perch” and are found flying or clinging to vertical surfaces, like trees or chimneys. The Swifts spend most of their time in the air – where they catch bugs, drink, find a mate and make baby birds. They arrive in Oregon in late April, do their courting and hooking-up in May and June and have their 4-6 eggs laid and hatched by July. The roost (group of birds) started using the school chimney in the early 80’s in response to the loss of much of their natural roosting habitat (old growth Douglas fir and forest snags). The students and staff at the school took a vote and it was decided that the heat would not be turned on at the school until the birds (up to 30,000 of them!) had moved out. Sweater weather, baby, since class temperatures were running in the 60’s and 50’s by the end of September. So, as these thousands of birds start showing up every night in small numbers and then you see more and more joining in this ever-growing group circling the area of the school – others are gathering, too. Up to 2000 people show up with blankets and lawn chairs and cardboard boxes (for kids to slide down a hill at the school). And then there are the hawks. Looking for an evening snack. As the numbers of Swifts increase an occasional hawk will swoop through the ever-growing circle of birds. You hear a collective “ohhhh”…and then, on this night, applause as all swifts survived each swoop. And then the circle tightens to almost what could be called a vortex, spinning faster and faster until one bird suddenly dives into the chimney and the rest start down as well. It takes about half an hour for them all to get in there as dusk deepens to darkness.
As a side-note, around 2003 the Audubon Society of Portland, school fundraisers and corporate sponsors donated $60,000 to $75,000 for an alternate school heating system which is independent of the chimney. The brick chimney is now maintained solely for the use of the birds.
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