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September 26th, 2001 Ted Katauskas | Outdoors
 

The Race is to the Swift

     
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Self-awareness is a bitch.

After all, according to Sartre, a self-reflective consciousness is what separates humans from animals. Truth be told, in the wake of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, I'd gladly exchange my tortured mind for the vacuous peace of a bird brain. And it seems I'm not alone. A few evenings after the Twin Towers came crashing down, more than 200 Homo sapiens gathered on the hill above the soccer field at the Chapman School on Northwest 26th Avenue to watch 20,000 Chaetura vauxi, in their blissful ignorance of current events, bed down for the night in the school's decommissioned brick smokestack. Couples with dogs and parents with children spread blankets on the grass. They unloaded artisan breads, imported cheeses and bottles of pinot noir, but they did so without the usual laughter and raucous banter. They also brought candles to commemorate the dead. Once lit, the flames had to be shielded from the wind lest they be prematurely extinguished.

Eating was all but impossible--but not watching.

As darkness descended, so too did the Vaux's (pronounced "vawks") Swifts. Every night, from late August until early October, they come from every direction, batlike birds weighing less than an ounce, flying from their nesting grounds in British Columbia, Montana and Alaska at speeds of more than 100 mph. No one knows why swifts began using the smokestack nine years ago as a layover during the annual migration to Central America. The best guess is that, from the air, the big chimney looks convincingly like an old growth snag, the species' preferred--and disappearing--natural roost. Since swifts typically live a dozen years and are generational roosters, their numbers have been growing each season. Ironically, the man-made snag is now home to the largest itinerant population of Vaux's Swifts in North America, with the colony approaching 40,000 birds at its height.

At first, only a few swifts fluttered around the smokestack. Gradually, though, the birds massed, until a Hitchcockian tornado swirled above the smokestack. It exhibited the caprice of a funnel cloud, twisting clockwise, then counterclockwise, touching the mouth of the chimney then jumping a hundred feet into the air. Suddenly, with no discernable cue, as though a switch had been thrown, the chimney became a giant bird vacuum. The swarm corkscrewed into the smokestack. Birds disappeared at an alarming rate, but somehow the cloud only grew as more swifts arrived on the winds. After more than 30 minutes, when the chimney seemed ready to burst with birds, the last few stragglers stuffed themselves inside.

Somebody clapped. Others joined in. Soon, the whole throng was applauding a chimney in the darkness.

Because, I suspect, in the world where everything seemed so suddenly changed, it was reassuring to know that life still went on in the wild world as it always had, and probably always will. War or no war.


The best place to watch the swift spectacle is from the hill at Northwest 27th Avenue and Pettygrove. Volunteers from the Audubon Society's Swift Watch program will be at the site from 7-8 pm Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 27-30, to answer your questions. For more information, call 292-6855; www.audubonportland.org
 
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