Posted by: adventuressetravels | October 18, 2011

Mortal Combat as a Spectator’s Sport

A sleek form streaked through the sky, low over the heads of the crowd.  In a matter of seconds the large bird shot up gaining altitude.  Every eye stared, watching entranced as talons closed over a tiny swift.  Somehow the majestic falcon dropped its prey and the little black figure plummeted, in shock.

But the falcon was not willing to let its query escape so easily and pinned its wings close to its body dropping, faster than the wind.  In seconds the claws closed once again over the fragile body and the crowd cheered.

Watching the Vaux’s swift migration is one of Portland’s fun and quirky traditions.  Chapman Elementary School, which curiously enough is the prototype for Bart and Lisa Simpsons’ elementary school in the popular cartoon, is home to the largest gathering of Vaux’s swifts in North America.

Every August until mid-October 80s thousands of these little birds make Chapman Elementary School’s chimney their home.  Their home, when they’re not on the wing, that is.  These tiny black birds, each one no bigger than your hand, live most of their lives in flight, eating, drinking, hunting, mating, and building their nests, in an intense flying routine.

However, this apparently exhaustive workout is in fact the birds’ time to rest.  Portland is their relaxing stopover before the long migration south to winter with Chavez in Venezuela.

The Chapman roosting begins mid-August and by mid-September, at the high point of the stop-over, as many as 35,000 swifts are estimated to be staying in Chapman Chimney.  During the day the swifts go about their business of gobbling up every insect in sight to keep their energy up, but around dusk it’s time to go back home, and then the games begin.

Portlandians spread blankets out over the elementary school lawn, bring picnic baskets, craft beer, wine, and of course cameras of all shapes and sizes in preparation for the main event: the drama-filled swift extravaganza.  As dusk draws near the funnel of black dots spirals closer and closer to the chimney, looking like an avian tornado.

The funnel eddied around the chimney, drawing ever closer to the ultimate goal.  Suddenly, like a pile of autumn leaves expelled by a high-powered leaf blower, the swarm of birds vanished, scattered to the winds.  The crowd gasped.

“Hawk,” someone called.  Moments later the little birds were back sliding through the sky on their curved wings.

Cheers and groans erupted from the spectators of this cat and mouse game of hawk and swift.  Watching this life and death struggle unfold in front of you is better than going to the movies. Though cheering for the hawk villains may seem a bit blood-thirsty, it is merely utilitarian.  After all, a swift or two sacrificing himself for the greater good is sometimes necessary.

As the sun slipped down beneath the horizon the last of the birds disappeared into the reinforced chimney, the crowd exploded into applause.  The majority of the swifts made it to bed safe and sound.


  1. Great nature reporting. I’d like to see the pics labeled, mostly they are self explainatort, bur sometimes they aren’t, are the swifts being compared to bats, in the one photo?

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