Every September, birdwatchers flock to Chapman Elementary to watch Swifts during annual migration
Portland has its fair share of famous residents, from Nike founder Phil Knight to iconic hipster bands like the Decemberists and the Dandy Warhols. Northwest Portland street names such as Flanders and Lovejoy inspired the names of characters in The Simpsons, created by Portland native Matt Groening. The villainous Sideshow Bob’s rarely mentioned surname is Terwilliger, from the street near the Lewis & Clark campus.
However, during the month of September, there are no Portland residents as celebrated as the humble Vaux’s swift. These tiny birds, only 4.5 inches from wingtip to wingtip, descend on Portland en masse in late summer as they start out on their annual migration from Canada down to Central America. They take up residence by the thousands in spaces where they can nest vertically and regularly exit to eat insects. They especially like chimneys, due to the loss of hollow trees across their range.
North America’s largest colony of migrating swifts settles in the enormous chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland’s Northwest Alphabet District from late August to early October. Inside, they sleep in vertical rows of nests made by gluing together twigs with their sticky saliva. At dusk, the swifts, numbering up to 30,000 at a time, come pouring out of the chimney to catch bugs in the gathering darkness. At the end of the night, as the stars begin to come out, the massive clouds of swifts funnel back into the chimney in several waves, spiraling downward like water sloshing down a drain.
For hundreds of Portlanders, going to watch the swifts at Chapman Elementary has become a time-honored tradition. Local resident Petra Alexander said the crowd that gathered on Sept. 23 was the largest turnout she had seen. She estimates 1,000 people were in attendance.
“I’ve been coming here for at least 15 years, I think,” Alexander said. “This (crowd) has definitely reached crazy levels.”
Her friend, Marabeth, chimed in.
“But no one’s been able to do it for two years, too.”
The swift-watching crowd is multiethnic and multigenerational. Grandparents, young couples with infants, teenagers and everybody in between spread out picnic blankets and folding chairs on the hillside of Wallace City Park overlooking the historic school building. Nearly everybody brought a picnic dinner, a few people strummed guitars and dozens of children slid down the grassy hill on makeshift cardboard sleds.
Not every attendee was a longtime Portlander. Yulia Shipulina, a Ukrainian-American charity worker with Lutheran Community Services Northwest, brought 14 Ukrainian and Russian refugees to see the swifts. Their picnic table was adorned with blue and yellow balloons.
“We wanted to have this gathering and invite them to see this tradition of Portland,” Shipulina said. “We’re sharing our feelings, worries, (and) updates about life. I’ve lived in Portland for five years, and I thought, hey, it’s a Portland tradition to gather over here to watch the swifts, so it would be a great thing to show the newcomers.”
The first flock of swifts appeared around 6:30 p.m. and a hush fell over the crowd as if the lights had just gone down in a theater. They formed shapes in the air that seemed almost solid, moving like a single organism rather than thousands of tiny, chirping birds. It felt halfway between watching a ballet and watching the aurora borealis.
What makes the occasion all the more theatrical is the appearance of a villain: a local Cooper’s hawk who often attempts to snatch swifts out of midair. To some, this is the highlight of the night. “I like the hawk,” said eleven-year-old Ellie Hardigg, who has been taken to see the swifts nearly every September since she was one year old. “We’re on Team Hawk,” Alexander said, when asked to name her favorite part of the event.
Others use the swifts as a business opportunity. Seven-year-old Maren, who declined to give her last name, has set up a stand across the street from Wallace City Park where she sells home-baked brownies and cans of LaCroix soda for one dollar. She estimates she makes $75 per night.
According to the Oregon Audubon Society, which publishes estimates of the number of swifts at Chapman School per night, the swift count tends to peak around Sept. 20, but thousands of swifts remain through the first week of October. The annual number of swifts has stayed roughly constant since the Audubon Society began counting in 2009, which they attribute to community members’ tireless advocacy for the birds. For instance, in 2003 several local charities raised money for Chapman School to get a heating system that insulated the chimney, keeping both the swifts and the students at a comfortable temperature.
The swifts have been coming to Chapman School since at least the 1980s, and Portland’s favorite birds should grace the skies over the Northwest District for many more Septembers to come.