A dark cloud looms over the city, much like the rain clouds which will arrive later in the year. Those able to see the cloud more closely notice that it is not, however, a cloud of water. It's a mass of birds, on final approach to Portland. The cloud grows and grows all the while, swifts streaming into it, all fixed on a singular target: a brick protuberance in the northwest quarter of the city. Thousands of humans gather in awe on the ground below as a single swooping conglomeration of tiny black dots begins its evening ritual. As the birds near their target, they spread, circling in tighter and tighter loops so quickly that they soon appear uncountable to the awestruck mammals just yards below. As these birds, known to science only as Vaux's Swifts, continue to swell in number over Chapman Elementary School, so too do the humans below them. Indeed, beneath the birds, streets are clogged and cars are stopped, everyone watching the spectacle above. The AstroTurf field next to the swifts' target is packed with humanity, hundreds or thousands of faces watching the sky as they will every evening in September. For most, this event will be nigh-impossible to forget. For a select few from the Audubon Foundation, including Steve Engel, it's just the start of another Swift Watch season.
Steve is a perfect picture of a naturalist; his gray-streaked black beard, his pristine smile, and, most importantly, his enthusiastic manner when he talks about birds give away his great experience with and passion for the subject. A native of the West, Steve quickly became fascinated by birds in 1985, when he was given the opportunity to track individual birds in the field; there, he was immediately struck with a desire to combine birds with his other passion, education. This combination led him to natural areas around the country and the world, from Alaska to Antarctica, where he worked as a naturalist; his primary job was to “interpret what [his people] were seeing” on walks or even Zodiac boat rides. Finally stopping his traveling life, Steve joined the Audubon Society of Portland in 2006, having worked with the group years before. Today, he is the Adult Education Program Manager at Audubon, and is “one of three” employees tasked with educating not children, but adults. Thanks to his position, he now recruits volunteers to “set up a table” every night in September and takes care to supervise them their first night before allowing them to work on their own for the rest of the month. Despite his management position, though, he still makes a point of going out to Chapman at the beginning of each September to carefully train the volunteers he has recruited.
But why should we care at all about the swifts Steve attempts to educate us about? After all, these are just birds; and even for birds, they are pretty annoying. In the fall, they roost in large chimneys, forcing residents of the buildings beneath those chimneys to either go without heat for over a month of fall in Portland or burn the birds alive, leaving behind rotting carcasses and an unbelievable stench. It's not a fun choice to make. Even those living in homes with smaller chimneys can often not escape these birds, which nest in the spring. The racket of young Vaux's swifts begging for food usually continues for more than two weeks until the entire family leaves together—and they may be back the next year (Engel). These negatives again beg the question: why should we want to enjoy these birds? To know, we must first look at their biology and their attributes.
The Vaux's swift is a highly evolved and highly specialized bird which can only roost or nest on rough, vertical surfaces. Why? These swifts have a peculiar foot: while they have four small talons on the front of each foot, they lack rear talons (see Appendix). In Steve's words, “they can't cling to a wire or a branch, like other birds can” thanks to this peculiar feature; they are unable to balance themselves properly. This limitation means that the swift can only rest on rough, vertical surfaces—like hollow, upright logs (their preferred habitat) or, in cities, brick chimneys. In addition, these birds' inability to use horizontal surfaces means they spend the vast majority of their time in the air, and do essentially everything required for daily life, ranging from feeding (the average Vaux's swift eats over 4,000 insects in one day, most of which are mosquitos) to mating, in flight; as many unfortunate spectators have learned, “everything” also includes defecation (Engel).
The Vaux's swift also migrates. Typically, populations will breed in the northern Pacific Northwest and winter in Guatemala and Venezuela, thousands of miles from the lands of their birth. What is even more remarkable is that these swifts rarely travel in an organized fashion, or at night as most birds do; often, they fly by day, in amorphous flocks or even individually. Perhaps the more important of the two characteristics is their daytime migration; this timing lets us enjoy the spectacle of visible groups of birds making their way south. As most birds migrate at night and sleep in the day, the task is understandably much easier to excite the public into watching the swifts than it is to excite them into watching other birds (Engel). Though there is little data available on swifts' activities outside the United States, swifts are very common along the entire West Coast during migration season (“Seattle Audubon Society”). Portland is not the only city to experience the swifts; cities from Seattle to Los Angeles have dedicated migrating populations of these birds, and many have similar, if smaller, swift watch programs ("Thousands of migratory birds descend on downtown LA") . With urbanization increasing along the swifts' route, it has become very difficult for the swifts to find natural, hollow structures to roost in. Due to this lack of natural roosting sites, the swifts have increasingly taken to brick chimneys as stopovers on their long journey to the warm air of South America (Dolan). Now, these swifts' migration has concentrated more and more on certain re-used stopover points, such as Chapman School.
The swifts would not be famous if not for their incredible aerobatic performance in entering West Coast chimneys; their spiraling, spinning, and diving maneuvers amaze audiences below every time. The swift's phenomenal flying ability is the product of a life in the air. Just under 5 inches long, and cigar-shaped, the swift can achieve such quick turns with its quick-flapping, swept wings (Nehls, Aversa, and Opperman 186-87). But even with their skill in flight, the swifts must still be wary of predators. In their groups of thousands at the Chapman chimney, they present a fine evening meal to a nearby Cooper's hawk, as well as a local pair of peregrine falcons. The hawk, Engel says, will often bide its time on the rim of the chimney as thousands of swifts circle nearby. Then, suddenly, it will take a short hop or just reach out and grab an unlucky bird in its talons before quickly disappearing into its nearby territory to meet its mate at the nest. The occasional peregrine falcons, on the other hand, probably come from a nest in the Fremont Bridge, Engel says. They are also much more aggressive than the Cooper's hawks, and will fly through the spiral at high speed, grabbing a single bird before alighting back to the nest. Both the Cooper's hawks and the peregrine falcons have been around since before Steve moved to Portland, though the exact birds have probably changed in the past two decades. In all that time, Steve has only once ever seen two birds of prey at Chapman on the same day. They were Cooper's hawks, and one was chasing the other. It's reasonable, considering how valuable a food source the swifts must represent to these highly territorial birds. These birds of prey are also a hit with the swifts' audience; it's hard to say, though, whether they are rooting for the swifts or the predators on any given night.
The swifts themselves face more challenges than just predators: often, our activities can get in the way of their roosting. For example, modern chimneys, which use steel tubes inside a typically decorative layer, are inhospitable to swifts, who cannot find a toehold on the smooth inside of the chimney. As more and more modern chimneys are built, more and more older, useful chimneys are demolished or capped, or simply fall down from disuse. Despite human efforts to preserve those brick chimneys still remaining, the swifts' habitat is still being destroyed. Human mistakes, too, have hurt the swifts. Recently, in Hillsboro, a building with an old brick chimney turned on its furnaces... and dozens of flaming birds streamed out of the chimney. Not only was this, naturally, a negative outcome for the birds, but the human maintenance staff of the building had to clean the foul-smelling carcasses of dozens of burnt swifts from the area. Even at Chapman School, where the students and teachers wore coats and sweaters every September until Audubon issued them a grant for a new heating system, janitors and maintenance workers still have to clean out carcasses and piles of guano at the end of each season as simply another maintenance task (Engel).
While keeping the West Coast habitable to swifts can be a difficult job, it is unquestionably rewarding to the thousands of people who come to see them each year. Steve has attempted to generate even more interest by establishing a booth at Chapman each September to teach swift watchers more about what they are seeing: they aren't just looking at some birds diving into a chimney, they are really seeing the tip of the iceberg, the most conspicuous part of an ecosystem that extends up and down the West Coast, involving us humans, forests, birds of prey, and everything in between. And as with every species, the highly adapted swift is merely part of this larger system.
Audubon has also successfully publicized their Swift Watch; now, thousands of people on any given night appreciate this incredible display of nature and its own special beauty. Each has his own experience with the swifts and the crowd surrounding him, and perhaps even an air of amazement emerges as the sun sets over Portland and another day of the swifts' long journey. This same story plays out in countless other cities along the West Coast; some are more well-known, like Monroe and Los Angeles, while others, like Oregon City and Silverton, are less-known but still frequently used stopovers (Mapes) (Nielsen-Pincus). But “a lot of people leave without knowing any more than when they came,” and in that phrase lies Steve's goal: “educate as many people as we can” so everyone can experience the same passion he did in 1985, all those years ago—can have an experience such as I had, on my own inspiring swift watch, at Chapman School in September of this year (Engel).
A cloud of sporadic black dots. That's what I first saw as I arrived at Chapman to admire what thousands of Portlanders come each year to see. My viewing position was a perfect place not only to view the thousands of swifts as they entered the chimney, but also to take in the scene surrounding me. After all, there were two groupings of creatures there: one of swifts, and the other of humans. The schoolyard, including the AstroTurf soccer field, was filled with people with heads turned skyward, watching and waiting. From my vantage point near the edge of the crowds, I saw a sliver of humanity, milling about and relaxing on the stiff field. Parents were talking and eating on a rainbow of blankets—the cuisine ranges from wine to PB&J—while the children, for their part, had organized a game of soccer on the plastic grass. (Organized, that is, in the loosest sense of the word: the kids were dogpiling for the ball every five minutes.) Beyond the field, a small slope entertained more youngsters, who had procured cardboard from an unknown source, torn it up, and used each flat piece as a sled. The laughs and screams of the ubiquitous children almost drowned out the short chirps (“eep!” “eep!”) of the thousands of birds above us all.
As the swifts' aerobatics escalated, as they spun and dove and pulled up at the last moment, the intensity of the crowd's noises fell dramatically. Though the oblivious children still ran around and slid down the hill, more and more faces turned to the darkening heavens as the swifts began their final spiraling descents. The previously amorphous cloud then became a giant funnel, as the thousands of swifts began to enter their resting place all at once. Suddenly, a black flash, a swooping sound, and the swifts scattered. A shout came up from the crowd, now singularly focused on the life-and-death struggle above, as a falcon sped away from the birds as quickly as it had come; an unfortunate victim just visible in its talons. The swifts, temporarily distracted from their final destination, were only just visible as a slightly darker patch high in the twilight sky while the falcon circled the chimney, waiting for more. Slowly, the falcon, apparently satisfied with its prey, soared away from the chimney and slowly, just a dozen birds at a time, the swifts returned to their funneling. As the sun set, and the swifts began to enter the polygonal, browned chimney en masse once again, becoming harder and harder to see against the rapidly darkening sky, the murmur of the crowd returned to normal. The pond of people surrounding this brick-and mortar chimney began to change into numerous multicolored streams heading for the exits as another night's spectacle ended. As the final stragglers entered the chimney, and the red and white blocks of thousands of headlights appeared for blocks in every direction, I rose, pushing off the cold, stiff “grass,” and took note that only half an hour had elapsed since the show began. The birds, then safely ensconced inside the tall chimney, could still be faintly heard as thousands of them occasionally called to one another in the distance.
Where did I go? I left, as everyone else did, in near silence. But again, why? Perhaps it was our continued awe at the massive flock of birds which had just slid gracefully into that chimney. Perhaps it was solemn reverence, a mourning of the few who could not survive to the end of the day, those taken by the birds of prey and inducted once more into the greater biosphere from which they were born. Perhaps, just maybe, it was nothing more than simple respect; after such a performance, and such incredible feats of aerobatics, of endurance, of migratory prowess and of raw survival itself, the swifts deserved a respite. The swifts certainly seemed to think so; their own calls, now whispering, signaled that with a continent behind them and a continent before them, it was time for them to sleep. After all, they had a life's journey ahead.
Dolan, Maria. "The Disappearing Habitats of the Vaux's Swifts." Smithsonian. 18 2011: n. page. Web. 03 Nov. 2012.
Nehls, Harry, Tom Aversa, and Hal Opperman. Birds of the Willamette Valley Region. 6th ed. Olympia: R.W. Morse Company, 2011. 186-87. Print.
"Vaux's Swift." Seattle Audubon Society. N.p.. Web. 09 Nov 2012. <http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/vauxs_swift>.
Engel, Steve. Personal Interview. 08 November 2012.
"Thousands of migratory birds descend on downtown LA." Southern California Public Radio: KPCC, 24 September 2010. Radio.
Mapes, Lynda. "Hundreds flock to Monroe to watch migrating birds." Seattle Times 19 Sep 2008, n. pag. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.
Nielsen-Pincus, Nicole. "Oregon Vaux's Swift Survey."East Cascades Audubon Society. N.p., 07 2012. Web. 09 Nov 2012. <http://www.ecbcbirds.org/Projects/OregonVauxsSwiftSurvey/tabid/108/Default.asp>.
"Bird Group Names." The Nutty Birdwatcher. N.p.. Web. 4 Dec 2012. <http://www.birdnature.com/groupnames.html>.
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