A Tornado of Birds

7 Jan

When visitors come to Portland, the sights they want to see are the Rose Gardens, Voodoo Doughnuts and on a clear day Mount Hood. It’s a much lesser known spectacle that captivates me. During the month of September, the city is visited by an armada of Vaux swifts that use Portland as a way station on their long migration south to Venezuela. By day they range freely abroad eating bugs on the wing, fattening themselves with fuel.

But an hour before sunset something curious starts to happen. The city is divided into quadrants by a main east west thoroughfare, Burnside – and the north south flowing Willamette river. In the North West quadrant there is an elementary school Chapman which has a vast lawn attached. And during this month and at this time of day, the place is covered with picnic blankets and fold up lawn chairs. Masses of people seated on the grass and looking up into the sky. The central focus of attention is the great chimney that rears up from the school building. In a kind of aerial ballet the birds wing back from all across the city and start to circle the chimney. They seem to flock and separate according to an invisible current, wavering in and out of definition, hardening into the shape of a dark twister and then dissolving again.

Gradually more and more birds arrive from every point of the compass. And then some dip and dart into the chimney and fly out again. As the mass thickens, their purpose becomes firmer and they pour down into the chimney like water down a plughole. On and on in numbers that defy belief. It is reckoned that up to forty thousand swifts can roost in the chimney. The performance builds to a careful climax with the birds diving down in a solid wave. Until there are only a handful left in the evening sky. These stragglers plunge into the chimney but, seemingly unable to find space, dart out again. Until finally they too find their perch. A last solitary swift does a quick victory lap as a sign off flourish and disappears to the clapping applause of hundreds of spectators. It is an entrancing hour that seems like a symphony of nature – music made visual.

Some years back, the swifts lingered until well into October. The school did not wish to turn on the heating for fear of roasting the birds. All the children were asked to come to school in their warmest clothes and they willingly toughed it out for the sake of the swifts. A collection was taken up to install a gas heating system. And the chimney now belongs solely to the birds. It’s that kind of city.

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