ūüź¶ The swooping history of the Chapman Swifts

It’s Wednesday.

And if you’ve been with us for a while now, you know exactly what that means: It’s time to get a little weird.

Each Wednesday we collaborate with the fine folks at Weird Portland United to highlight the weird folks and features of our city, from historical flashbacks to things like the 24-hour Church of Elvis to the fantastic creatives like Carlos the Rollerblader and Strawberry Pickle who are shaking up Stumptown today. You can read our full collection of Weird Wednesdays here.

Today, we‚Äôre talking about a small-but-mighty weird feature here in Portland, and you could say that a little birdie told us all about it. ūüėČ We‚Äôre heading over to Chapman Elementary over in Northwest, rolling out a towel on the lawn, and waiting for dusk to watch a swoop of swifts fill the sky.

Scroll on down and we’ll tell you all a-bird it.

Every fall in Northwest Portland, a spiraling swirl of Vaux’s Swifts¬†surrounds the chimney stack of the¬†Chapman Elementary School¬†in the midst of their migration from Canada to Central and South America. The tiny birds spend their days hunting for insects and their evenings roosting, bat-like, in trees and chimneys.

Before chimneys dotted their landscape, the swifts used dead but still-standing hollow trees that were once much more abundant in our forests. Swifts began using the Chapman chimney as a¬†roost site in the late 1980s. For years, Chapman students and staff helped protect their school’s colony of swifts by waiting to turn on the furnace until after the swifts migrated south.

Some years the swifts didn’t leave until mid-October, so staff and students had to bundle up to stay warm instead of turning on the heat.

From 2000-2001, the Portland Audubon Society provided funding to renovate the school, including installing a new heating source and a separate chimney. This ensured that Chapman’s swifts would¬†always have a place to roost.

Chapman’s chimney draws an estimated 16,000 swifts every year looking for a place to hunker down for the evenings in early fall, and it’s thought to be one of the largest gatherings of migrating Vaux’s Swifts on the planet.

Pre-COVID-19, hundreds of visitors would gather on the grassy slopes of the school grounds to watch the annual sunset dance of the Chapman swifts.

Sadly, this year the event was canceled (again) to help maintain public health and safety through social distancing.

However, if you’re sad about missing this annual Portland tradition, we highly recommend the following videos of the swifts roosting:

Also check out the Portland Audubon Society for more information on our PNW avian neighbors.

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members. Stories like these are made possible with your membership and support.