The Swirling of the Birds: the Chapman swifts


Olivia Oliver

As you walk onto the campus of Chapman Elementary School, there are people spread out everywhere on the grassy hill, seated on blankets and in chairs. 

Early arrivals search for the best spot to see the birds. Children with cardboard sheets use the hill as a slide, running right back up once they reach the bottom. The joyful screams of kids and chatter of the eager crowd fill the air. The light from above soaks the world in blue as the sky darkens.  

In the sky, birds come into view, growing in numbers as the sun sets. With every interesting move and sharp turn of the birds, the crowd oohs and aahs in concert, creating a fun and interactive environment. 

During the month of September in Northwest Portland, Vaux Swifts spend their evenings swirling into a tornado shape and diving into the chimney at Chapman for roost. 

This spectacle has taken place each September since the late 1980s, according to the Audubon Society. The Audubon Society works to protect the swifts and educate the general public about them.

As many as 16,000 swifts hunker down in the chimney for roost. As they fly, expectant viewers take their spots upon the grassy knoll of the school and observe with utter concentration.

“Swift watching,” as it’s commonly known, has become a very popular event attracting almost 2,000 people a night.

Junior Meredith Gifford first saw the swifts when she was 10 year old.

“Seeing them feels very magical,” she said.

Gifford recommends that everyone should try and see the swifts at least once. 

Kellie Larose, a volunteer from the Audubon Society, thinks people come back year after year to see the swifts for the connection to such a rare natural experience. An event incredibly unique to see in person.

The swifts migrate during the fall towards Central America and Venezuela and end up passing through the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region. According to the Audubon Society, swifts usually roost in old growth forests in the snags of trees, but due to the decrease of old growth forests, the swifts have begun using chimneys instead. 

Once a population of swifts find a suitable chimney, such as Chapman’s, they are likely to return year after year.

Larose explained that the Audubon Society constantly works to protect the swifts. They raised money to make the chimney earthquake proof and developed a wildlife care center where they take care of injured swifts, then release them back to the wild.

To be able to have the best experience watching the swifts, you should follow these tips given by the Audubon Society: 

  1. It’s best to arrive an hour before sunset, just as the swifts are preparing to head into the chimney for the night. 
  2. The middle of September is when you’re most likely to catch the most amount of swifts in a night, as reported from the Audubon Society data. 
  3. Bringing a blanket or a chair to sit on might be ideal, as viewers typically watch the event from the lawn of the school. 

Gifford gave her own tips for those looking to view the swifts for the first time.

“Bring some food and a blanket, it’s fun to have a picnic,” she said. 

The swifts are a unique event to experience in Portland–one that Gifford described as “breath-taking, enchanting, calming.”