The Vaux Swift

“It’s like a ballet. They move around in unison, and then there’s drama when the hawks come. It’s unique. It’s better than TV,” said Maren, my de facto tour guide to the vaux swift watch last Thursday night. We walked on the sidewalk approaching the Chapman School located in Northwest Portland, Oregon. Our necks craned upward as the concentration of tiny black birds intensified.

The destination for these birds was a brick smokestack, a relic of the early twentieth century school building. No longer used for its constructed purpose, the smokestack now serves as the nightly resting place of more than twelve thousand migrating swifts during the month of September. Every year since the early 1980s, the swifts have come to roost together in the brick column.

As I walked up the hill, a crowd of several hundred Portlanders emerged. Holding binoculars, sipping on root beer, and sitting on blankets, they watched as the birds formed a giant cyclone, spiraling into the chimney. “The birds are coming from the clouds in Portland and going in there!” one five-year old boy explained to me as he pointed to the chimney.

Several green-vested Portland Audubon members walked among the crowd to answer questions. Rob visited my group, explaining the lifestyle of a swift. He described how swifts never stop during the day. They can’t. Their feet are tiny garden rakes, stiff and incapable of grabbing branches. Their heart rate, only surpassed by hummingbirds, does not allow them to rest until night.

The dominate question involved the tornado of swifts taking part in their bedtime ritual. “They talk to each other and create this vortex. It’s a ritual they go through every night. The vortex is the most efficient way for them to get into the small hole,” Rob said.

Just then, a peregrine falcon erupted from the chimney empty handed. Screams and gasps from the crowd interrupted the casual evening conversations.

The vortex dissipated and formed a new cloud. Thousands of swifts chased the falcon. The new cloud became a serpent in the sky as it twisted and coiled to follow the predator. Some call it self-defense and others call it liberation theory. Either way, their plan did not work. The falcon, indifferent to the thousands of angry followers, looped around for another go.

“He got one!” yelled a spectator. His tone was a mixture of sadness and excitement. “You dirty bugger!” he continued.

As night fell and the final swifts found their place, the crowd grabbed their blankets and retrieved their bicycles. I walked back to mine, contemplating the significance of the evening. The night had a dizzying electricity to it. My psyche buried itself in undivided fascination as I tracked one bird after another.

Above all else, I loved how the swifts have found a place for themselves in the modern landscape. They could have found a hollowed out tree like their ancestors had been doing for thousands of years, but they chose a smokestack instead. The end result: the masses responded positively, welcoming change to their September evenings.

Is the choice of the swifts unrelated to the questions we face in our world today? The temptation is to lead a life of criticism, start over, and build a new community. But maybe such a retreat answers the wrong question. The question is not, how can we separate ourselves and make our world pure? The question is, can our worlds harmonize?