Went to watch the Vaux’s Swifts at Chapman Elementary School last night — it was a beautiful night in Portland after a warm, almost summery day. The full harvest moon was coming up in the east as the sun was settling down and the the swifts funneled into their chimney for the night.
About four inches long and very fast (there’s a reason they’re called “swifts”) Vaux’s is the smallest North American swift. Birders often refer to them as looking like “flying cigars” because of the short stubby body and long wings. In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “vox.” It looks French but was named for an American — William S. Vaux.
You don’t see very good pictures of swifts because they’re always in motion — I have dozens of attempts showing blurry black dots in the sky. In fact pretty much the only time they’re not in motion is when they’re inside a roost. That was originally something like a hollow tree, but they’ve adapted to man-made structures and chimneys are one of their favorites. In Portland, the chimney up at Chapman Elementary School is the place to go on September nights to watch them. The swifts come together in these communal roosts in the fall as they prepare for migration to Central America.
People gather by the school to have picnic dinners and watch the birds perform. There are thousands of them (birds, I mean — but often several hundred people as well). Audubon estimates at least 10,000 swifts or so in mid-September. Some years there have been 35,000. The funnel resembles a plume of smoke being pulled back inside a chimney in kind of a reverse motion. But the birds enjoy quite a few acrobatics before they settle down. Maybe having that one last insect snack before bedtime. Sometimes there’s even more excitement as raptors show up to see if they can get in a snack as well. They don’t often get lucky, though, because the swifts are so fast. This year is the first time I’ve personally seen Peregrines up there and they’re definitely fun to watch even though I don’t really want them to get the swifts. Other years there have been Cooper’s Hawks as well.
Swifts eat mostly insects and, like everything else they do, they eat on the fly — no sitting around and waiting. Actually they couldn’t sit around if they wanted to because their feet don’t allow for it. They’re designed to cling to the inside of trees or walls and work on a principle similar to velcro. So that nighttime roost is the only time they’re sitting still.
If you want to catch up on the history of their life at Chapman, there’s an older video by Oregon Public Broadcasting that’s available on YouTube at Since that broadcast was made the school has replaced the heating system so the children don’t have to wear coats if it’s cool in September. The fun part of the story is that they were willing to and did for several years. The OPB story also shows a bird’s feet — since part of their presentation is about putting a couple of baby swifts into a chimney till they’re ready to fly. There are some other videos on YouTube as well that show the funneling effect. For more detail about the birds themselves, visit Cornell’s All About Birds
As one note on ornithology — there is such a bird as the Chapman’s Swift, but it doesn’t live here. It’s a South American bird. It’s just something of a coincidence that our Vaux’s Swift happens to like Chapman School. So you go to Chapman to see the swifts but they’re not “Chapman’s Swifts” as far as bird names go.
Audubon Society of Portland sets up a table with information most nights in September and staff and volunteers are available to answer your questions. Further info from Audubon is available at Swift Watch
This year we have even more excitement than usual. On Saturday, September 20, there will be a special walk in the afternoon from Montgomery Park to Chapman where there will be special events as well as the usual bird displays. To sign up go to :
And coming up in October we have a documentary created by a relatively new Portlander who happened to move near Chapman and became fascinated by the swifts. It will be showing at Cinema 21 on October 2, 2008, and will be a benefit for the Audubon Society of Portland. A trailer for the film is posted on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vojNdQf53bQ Tickets may be purchased in advance at