The Swifts of Chapman Chimney

Nonfiction by Brady Richards

 
We, the people, arrive by way of city streets, picking our way through the park grass.

They, the birds, arrive from bruise-colored clouds in the dimming north—first one, then others—converging, chittering, festooning across a lavender sky.

They have waited for nightfall to return to the chimney.

We have waited a year for this return.

Why? We don’t know.

We do know that the birds are a migratory congregation of Vaux’s swifts, and that for one month every fall they return to Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland, Oregon, to feed and rest and gather the moxie to fly south. We know they explore the city by day and return when the sky is purple, and for one hour in the dusky light they merge together and spiral down one by one into the school’s chimney for the night.

We also know we like to watch.

Things we don’t know:

How many there are. How they find the chimney year after year. Why they build a storm above our heads—though we seem to have done likewise on the school’s lawn: each a few feet from the next, carpeting the land.

And for now the answers don’t matter. The swifts are back, and excitedly we watch the revolving column of winged bodies stretch hundreds of feet into the evening air.

As an individual, the Vaux’s swift (Chaetura vauxi) isn’t much: 4.5 inches long, the color of a dust bunny, with a cigar body and letter-opener wings. He is of relatively more interest as an aviator, spending the bulk of his time in pursuit of flying insects—a neat trick if you’ve never tried to catch a wasp in your mouth—and speedy and acrobatic enough to mate on the wing. And while these morphological and ethological traits may be of interest to the Cornell ornithologist or hardcore birder, Chaetura vauxi has managed to attract thousands of layman fans with his sleep habits.

Ranging from Alaska to Venezuela, the Vaux’s swift is biologically accustomed to the forests that cover western North America—in particular, old-growth forests with abundant standing deadwood, for it is in these hollow trunks that Chaetura vauxi roosts. Inside, he clings with his flock for warmth, their oblong bodies pieced together like argyle, and overnights for days or weeks up and down the continent. As development and logging have decimated old-growth stands, leaving the Vaux’s swift with precious little habitat, he has adapted by roosting alongside humans.

Waking one day to find swifts in your chimney is a fairly common occurrence. Chaetura vauxi even has a cousin over the Rockies called a chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica). It’s pretty obvious when you think about it: a chimney is the clearest architectural analogue to a standing deadwood snag. But the Vaux’s swift doesn’t have thousands of fans for just roosting in chimneys. He attracted those fans by roosting in one particular chimney.

Chapman Elementary School. It is something of a landmark in Portland, Oregon, and in the Pacific Northwest landmarks tend to announce themselves. The immensity of geographical features makes for a simple (though time-consuming) point-and-go orientation, a phenomenon local hikers in the stratovolcano-studded Cascades know well. It is likely that migratory birds see the region similarly.

As for the Vaux’s swifts, we know they start their journey near Alaska’s Inside Passage and follow the Pacific Flyway south, ocean on their right, mountains on their left. We can imagine the reference point Vancouver Island provides, or what line the Columbia River marks in their avian brains, after which they bank west toward the coast or east toward the Cascades, or head straight toward Portland, set midway between the two.

From an orienteering perspective, the city of Portland is also very identifiable. Located just south of the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers and slumped against the Tualatin Mountains, the city begins where Douglas firs end. And there—right there—is Chapman Elementary School and its three-story brick chimney.

The chimney was once part of the furnace system, but the school suspended its use in the fall of 1982 when the first swifts arrived. The children loved the visitors, after all, and didn’t much mind the cold classrooms—it was a teachable moment—and the school continued its heating regime when the birds left. But the next year they returned, as they did the year after, and the year after that. After many autumns of returning swifts and chilly classrooms, the Chapman Elementary School management, spurred on by community support, replaced the heating system, reinforced the chimney’s structure, and gave the swifts their permanent seasonal home.

Almost immediately, the public latched onto the little birds, which they called the “Chapman swifts” (not to be confused with the Chapman’s swift [Chaetura chapmani]), and they came out in droves during the birds’ month-long residency to watch their nightly descent into the chimney.

Whether it is because the phenomenon is exceedingly rare, or because it represents some new eco-urban paradigm, or because it is simply joyful to behold, the swifts are the reason the bike racks are full tonight and there is no parking for blocks. They are the reason we are all sitting here on this grassy hill, waiting for the spectacle to begin.

No one told us the swifts were in town. Rather, everyone did. “It’s amazing. Only lasts a few weeks! Go.” And here we are when they arrive around eight, writing banners in the pale sky.

We point. We cheer. “Why do they do this?” we ask, amid a chorus of pulled corks. And maybe it’s the buzz of the crowd, or maybe it’s the novelty of adults haunting school grounds, but every answer sounds like scuttlebutt.

“The swifts have a hypersensitive geospatial coordinate system that guarantees them precision returns year after year.”

“Look. It’s obvious they’re in it strictly for kicks.”

A glassy neighbor leans in. “Energy vortices,” she says. “Super-huge chakras that draw and emit power from the earth’s core, arranging living beings like iron filings at a magnet’s end.”

Because these answers don’t answer much, and because whatever we currently feel is out of the reach of articulation, we raise our glasses and begin the picnic instead, as most others have already done: Pacific rose apples, smoked gouda, sourdoughs boules. Don’t forget plenty of the Willamette Valley wine. Because there is only so much speculation we can take. Even amidst the ponderous wonders of the swifts, the here and now of the spectacle comes first. And the spectacle, of which we are a part, has begun.

While the exact date of the swifts’ yearly arrival is variable, by mid-September the grounds of Chapman Elementary are guaranteed to be packed nightly. Estimates for spectator turnout generally number in the hundreds, but on the finest autumn days, the grassy slope, the AstroTurf field below it, and the verdant expanses of adjacent Wallace Park are paved with swift watchers—more than three thousand in attendance. To capitalize on this momentary frenzy, the Audubon Society of Portland issues its own advocative propaganda. “Swift Watch” invades local news outlets and the Internet. Weather conditions, last night’s bird count, and other juicy ornithological factoids tempt potential swift watchers out of their homes and to the chimney.

The resulting atmosphere is pleasantly carnivalesque. Picnics are popular. So are Frisbees and fat joints. Children slide down the parched grass on dismantled cardboard boxes while dogs run the aisles between blankets, slapping their tails into everybody’s faces. To ensure an educational component, Audubon Society volunteers, wearing bouncy antennae headbands tipped with plush Vaux’s swifts, circulate with informative leaflets and man a kiosk dedicated to all things swift. Chaetura vauxi specimens are available (deceased, under glass) for close inspection, and volunteers field all swift-related queries. 

These volunteers would appear cheerful but for the pique at the corners of their eyes. This is most likely because they love birds, not people, but to wholly love the birds, they must explain them to the people. Without this conservationist compulsion, the volunteers would undoubtedly ponder the interior universe of Chaetura vauxi alone, or in small aficionado circles, without the aggravation of the public, moving past behavior, morphology, and interspecies dynamics to that great birder nirvana: astral projection into flight. Yet here they are, too, come to enjoy the show.

Some of us, though, remain wary. We know well the many false spectacles of the world. Politics. The Super Bowl. Gaudy tricks of theatrical effect. But the swifts surprise us. They are inexplicable. Their sudden appearance in the Portland sky captures our imagination and flashes a keyhole glimpse into something immediate and primal, and we see that, yes, this is a real spectacle, full of wonder, mortality, and might.

Consider the facts:

1.The swift flies far. Chaetura vauxi has a migratory range of seven thousand miles—the entire western coast of North America. Even if a single swift travels a quarter of that distance, that one 4.5-inch bird will travel 3,500 miles in a single year (one-seventh the Earth’s circumference, by the way), with no resources but for his anatomy and instincts. Compare this to a familiar human migrant—the snowbird. Traveling from Portland to Phoenix, the snowbird does roughly the same number of miles, but by the grace of satellite technology, the global economy, and a forty-foot Class A motorhome.

2. The swift remembers. Somewhere along his vast migratory arc, the swift finds the Chapman chimney—a black speck in the sweep of North America—and returns to it at more or less the same time each year. In all probability he does likewise at other locations and, by doing so, employs a network of safe houses that line the continent. It is unclear whether any given swift has visited the chimney before. He could be a fledgling born along the way, inaugurated into an inter-generational event—to wit, part of a culture.

As we absorb all this, we think, quite cynically, OK. Sure. But there are lots of migratory birds that perform the same feats. It’s not like this is unique.

Which leads us to:

3. The Chapman swift is unique. By arriving at the Chapman chimney, he becomes part of the largest known congregation of Vaux’s swifts (more than 16,000 at highest count, with unconfirmed estimates up to 35,000). Here, for a short time, he enacts a complex nightly ritual—a distinct, extraordinary event that may exist nowhere else on Earth—for reasons we do not (and perhaps cannot) understand, all to continue living as swifts do. In spite of our conditioned cynicism, he is extraordinary, mysterious, and precious.

And he’s right there before our eyes.

We talk about this with a neighbor who balances a large-lensed camera on a rubber-nubbed pole. He is shooting a smudge of birds as they flutter across a picturesque cloud.

“Yeah, I suppose,” he begins, but stops to point. “Look.”

There are thousands of swifts above us. They expand and contract like a titanic, lacy muscle. As we watch, we lose individual Chaetura vauxi and instead for the first time view the flock as a whole, where a very different consciousness is emerging. While the flight pattern of a single swift is darting and lyrical, the group’s movement is slow, aqueous churning. In truth, it looks like a school of fish, an opinion echoed by many spectators. As they swirl, the illusion becomes harder to ignore, and the atmosphere takes a moody turn.

We are no longer animated and enthusiastic, pointing to the sky. We speak quietly now. We lie down (trying not to worry about the potential for being shit on) and drift into private spaces. More birds arrive by the minute.

Like the wildebeests of the Serengeti or the sandhill cranes of Nebraska’s Platte River, the Chapman swifts are by no means the only large wildlife-massing phenomenon in the world. But along with the Mexican free-tailed bats of Austin, Texas, they are one of the few available to the average American city-dweller.

We have walked, biked, or driven here from our homes or places of employment, braving nothing but traffic to witness the anomaly. We drink wine and eat fruit (still cold from the refrigerator) and talk about friends, or movies, or nothing at all while the swifts initiate their wild ritual. They have come to us en masse, and they have come to us freely. As with all unearned gifts, we treat the whole thing casually. Sure, we are excited. We are celebrating. But what are we celebrating? The birds, or the spectacle? This confusion makes it difficult for us to see the event for what it is, or to recognize its rarity and what that might mean.

It’s not necessarily our fault. The American mythos is replete with natural abundance, most of it a memory so vivid it appears real. To us, somewhere in the nation, salmon choke rivers and bison roam plains. But the reality is that the United States is a quiet place—our sacred spaces indeed large but empty, our cities abuzz but sterile. What richness must have existed on that original continent to trick us into believing it was endless? The same trick is at work still.

Maybe in Alaska or Idaho this America exists, we think. Wyoming, Utah, or Maine.

The swifts unknowingly carry to us this illusion, regularly and scheduled as if it were a broadcast, and in that false impression lies a painful, hidden truth: our pursuit of proliferation will secure our solitude.

Yet as the swifts mass and begin to swirl, we glaze over, murmur in awe, and imagine all the other simultaneous and spontaneous acts of abundance with stars in our eyes. We see the rich mosaic of color and life as from a satellite and rejoice aloud.

For a moment, we can be proud.

But the foreignness we feel cannot be good. We have gone too long without connection to animal consciousness, which makes us see the swifts with magical, transposing eyes. They are a school of fish, or smoke, or a speech bubble issuing from the chimney’s mouth. Anything but Vaux’s swifts, as we rapidly assign to the foreign creatures familiar language to stem a rising in our throats:

“What are they? What is this? Why?”

We don’t know. Neither do the Audubon Society volunteers with their swift-tipped antennae, though they again press pamphlets into our hands. We gape upward—the filigreed muscle pulsing—and no longer see little Chaetura vauxi.

We see a storm.

The predators are expected; they are part of the spectacle. But when they actually arrive, we are surprised. The spell breaks. Ambiguous sounds erupt. Boos, leers, and insults. Whistles, hoots, and applause. Whether we hate or love the predators, we know one thing: the swifts are in danger. From the forest come menacing silhouettes, circling the flock, and dark energy infects the crowd.

From behind a ponderosa pine, the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) strikes first. We gasp. The swift flock responds as a single organism, caving from the blitz and billowing responsively out the other side. The crowd likes that. There are oohs and aahs. The tornado churns on without slowing.

A peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) strikes next, bombing the western flank. Seeing the feathered marvel drop like a meteor yanks a shout from our throats. The flock, though, with its hive perception, senses the attack and furrows like cloven dough. The falcon streaks through, flexing his talons in empty air.

A tremendous roar from the crowd echoes off the school’s facade, but before it can subside a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) attacks from below. It bores straight through the tornado’s base to pick off individual birds as they bottleneck near the chimney’s mouth. The hawk flies admirably—strike, correct, strike again—but the avian prowess of the flock prevails. 

As the Accipiter emerges from the tornado without a kill, the Cooper’s hawk returns for another attempt, as does the falcon.

Suddenly, we are on our feet. A man in black leather is jumping up and down. Some guys and girls leaning on bikes are also afire, howling through their hands. Most of the crowd, though, looks afraid for the swifts, eyes upturned and supplicatory.

But swifts are hardly defenseless. The smooth sides of the tornado bubble, and monstrous arms extend. They grow fists to smash their attackers, and the fists detach to loose great balls of livid birds. We squint and take note of the delicate warfare within. Individual swifts retort with near-kamikaze bursts. They form mobs and inscribe furious halos around their enemies, pushing them out toward the forest, much to the crowd’s relief.

It is probable that the falcon and hawks succeed occasionally—why else would they return night after night?—but tonight they have failed. We wonder: Is this the reason for the extraordinary size of the Chapman flock? Could it be we are watching prey’s primal mantra repeated once again: safety in numbers? It seems plausible, but we are overcome as a hawk beats it toward the forest, an ornery swift squadron in pursuit. We applaud with genuine emotion that is now richer and sweeter, like watching the brave exploits of a friend.

Predators thwarted, the swifts refocus their mass and fill the gray-violet dusk above us. Visual acuity wanes, a tranquil thrill charges the air, and their tornado’s revolutions play funny tricks on the eye.

Trick one: Our sight is sucked up and ejected into the vastness of first stars.

Trick two: Gravity pulls it back down dead-level to the chimney lip.

As such, we rock our heads between the two, and our neighbors do the same, a gentle up-down levering that has infected the entire crowd.

It is the final hour. The quiet time before the swifts improbably enter the chimney like a parade marching into a mouse hole, and we inhabit an in-between place similar to the blurry patch that separates day from night. It is hard to tell whether anything more will happen. Seamlessly, the spinning swifts have shifted from a novelty into something static and eternal.

And as we nod, drift off, fade outward through our blankets, a lone child shouts:

“One went in!”

It’s true! A swift entered the chimney!

It is followed by another, then another.

We’re back—dogs howling, children on their feet, adults pointing exuberantly to the mouth of the stack—and our visible world shrinks to a four-foot-wide cylinder about four feet high: the needle’s eye through which all swifts must now pass. The Audubon Society volunteers begin the impossible task of counting individual birds with hand tally machines as the birds enter the roost. We sit up and begin sighing.

Impossible!

The chimney (defunct now, of course) appears to belch smoke, but that smoke is in reverse, condensing and entering in ghostly order. Really, one bird at a time spirals down the funnel and drops from the bottom, slowing its descent with a blur of outstretched wings before disappearing inside. This happens speedily, making the maneuver even more impressive.

Yet after five minutes, the mountain of swifts in the sky has not appreciably changed. They enter in a stream. One two. Three four five. Six. Seven eight. The volunteers’ thumbs click, and we attempt to keep pace but give up seconds later, unsure whether we are inordinately slow counters or just night blind.

How long can this go on?

After ten minutes there is no sign of diminished numbers. We contemplate the interior of the chimney, wondering about the scent, the sounds, the etiquette required for such dense cohabitation. Does each bird each night reclaim the same piece of wall? And if there is no wall left, do they cling to other birds? And, if so, does the chimney actually fill up, full, like a champagne bottle of pillow stuffing?

This line of questioning leads nowhere, so we consider again the sky and pull on a volunteer’s sleeve.

“What’s happening inside the tornado?”

A middle-aged woman looks confused.

We say it again, but differently. “What do the swifts see up there?”

She bends down and peers into our faces. “Do you mean, what are they thinking?”

Yes! That is exactly what we mean, but the woman has turned back to the chimney, clicking madly. We would like to ask her another question, but our mouths seem to have stopped working. Now, we can’t move. It is not hypnosis per se, but something very near: a profound stillness contemplating unimaginable clutter. And we stay like this half an hour or more—the swifts very close and everything else very far—until there is but a wisp left, maybe only a hundred birds circling the chimney’s mouth.

Tired, a bit dizzy, we gather our things, tuck them into bags and backpacks, and pick our way down the slope as the final swifts enter for the night.

In bed, we think spiral thoughts. Why? We don’t know. It’s late. We appear to be peaceful. But our mind’s true disposition reveals itself within the first minutes of sleep.

Indigo sky.

Below it, a black construction-paper forest.

There are the swifts, spinning exactly as before, but without predators or crowds or tallying thumbs ticking. There is no sound but for the shushing of unnumbered wings, no movement but their spinning, in a world of nothing but sky and birds and a snag the size of a ship.

We watch like before: formless, propelled by desire. This time, though, we are hovering, then circling, then at great speed moving toward the flock. And we feel it. The invisible clock strikes.

Before a veil of stars, we swifts methodically, and for reasons all our own, enter our jagged home.

It’s morning. Joggers flap by. Children waddle past. Atop a small gray house, two swifts exit a chimney and spin off toward distant trees.

All day at work we are mildly uncomfortable. Yes, responsibilities are attended to, duties are dispatched, but they lack color or substance. We find ourselves wondering what the backs of whales look like, or whether you can hear a city from a thousand feet.

Finally, we ask it:

Will the swifts be back tonight?

And what about next year? Or the year after that?

And if the chimney ceases to suit them, will they find another?

And if there is no other, and all the old growth is razed, what then? Will they become stay-at-home birds like we have become stay-at-home humans? Or will they wink out, lost along with their homes like a snail parted from its shell?

Our questions remain unanswered, but after work, we decide, we will go the long way home. Pass by Chapman Elementary. It will be early. The chimney will just be a chimney. Still, we will stop and watch the western sky and think:

Swift—what a lovely word.

 

Thanks to the Audubon Society of Portland, and in particular Joe Liebezeit for his help and devotion to the Chapman swifts.

Brady Richards lives in the southwest, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction at New Mexico State University and the Managing Editor of Puerto del Sol. His work can be found in the North American Review.