The Chapman Swifts

It’s the kind of event that could make the average Portlander (if they weren’t flexible from all that yoga) dislocate a shoulder from patting themselves on the back for how cool their city is.  Even in my state of I-don’t-really-belong-in-my-home-town cynicism, I have to admit that this is pretty special.  An incredible natural display in the sky above, and on the ground below a warm, fuzzy, urban scene that would make the world’s most committed hermit believe in community.  September is the best month to be in Oregon.  And watching the swifts at Chapman Elementary School is one of the best things to do in Portland.

Spectacle in the Sky

Gazing upwards, at first I see nothing.  But as the light fades the swifts start to appear – small, chattering, fast moving flecks in the sky.  More and more arrive, swooping and spiraling around as they prepare to roost for the night.  They are migratory birds, passing through Portland on their way to Central America or Venezuela.  They typically roost by hanging on the inside walls of dead, hollowed-out trees, but there are fewer and fewer of those around, so they go for the next best thing – a chimney.

As the evening stretches on, more and more birds arrive.  They swarm around making a giant figure eight in the sky.  Sometimes they are not alone.  A hawk or falcon will show up to take advantage of the passing buffet- high drama in the sky.  Then suddenly, as if someone had given a signal, the birds will dive down into the chimney.

 K. Kendall's photo of swifts entering the chimney of a Portland elementary school.

The grand finale. Photo by K. Kendall.

A Portland Scene

Though not nearly as dramatic, the scene on the ground is pretty cool too.  Families come with picnics. Kids bring pieces of cardboard to use as sleds sliding down the grassy slope outside the school- a “kid mosh pit” I heard a woman say.  Everyone “oohs” and “ahs” and applauds the birds.  An independent film maker was so taken with the scene that he made a movie about it.

Eli Duke's photo of a young Portland businessman.

Young Portland entrepreneur. Photo by Eli Duke.

The story of the Portland swifts follows a happy narrative of human cooperation. There is an inherit problem with using a chimney as a roosting site.  People also use chimneys for heat.  Some years the swifts don’t leave until mid-October when things are getting chilly.  With the blessing of the students (they voted on it) the school decided not to turn the furnace on until the birds left, but how do you teach arithmetic to a shivering child? In 2000, the school and the Portland Audubon Society worked together raising funds to convert the heating system and stabilize the chimney.  Now the kids can be warm even when the birds are in town.

K. Kendall's photo of the crowd at Chapman Elementary.

Portlanders gather for the sky show. Photo by K. Kendall.

How to See the Swifts

Where: Chapman Elementary School is located at 1445 NW 26th.

When: An hour or so before sunset on any September evening.

What to Bring:  You don’t have to bring anything, but you may be more comfortable if you have a blanket or chair to sit on.  And why not pack a picnic?

Price: Free!

How Many Birds Will I See?  Thousands.  Literally.  Counts (some lucky soul from the Audubon attempts to count every night) range from 2,000 to 15,000.  Numbers usually peak in the middle of the month.  Check the Portland Audubon Society Swiftwatch page for more information.

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