Species: Vaux’s Swift, or Chaetura vauxi
Family: Apodidae (Swifts)
Star sign: Pisces
Ideal Date: Joining the Mile High Club
A few weeks ago, between one day and the next, our lovely campus climate went from warm and sunny to cold and rainy — as if God himself realized he’d forgotten to press the ‘fall weather’ button and slammed it at the last minute. And as we say hello to long nights and foggy skies, we also say goodbye to our tiny soaring neighbor, the Vaux’s Swift. You may not have noticed this friend, but in the summer months he is ever-present, soaring through the air above our heads, nothing but a tiny black silhouette against the clear blue sky. This flighty fellow feeds on tiny bugs buzzing through the atmosphere at rates of thousands per day.
What makes swifts like Mister Vaux so special is the fact that they don’t merely fly through the air, but inhabit it. According to an article from Audubon, the Common Swift, a species found in Afro-Eurasia, is able to stay airborne for as many as ten months straight while it feeds on insects in the sub-saharan! TEN MONTHS!!! That’s longer than it takes babies to get born! While our humble Vaux’s Swift is not quite as impressive as its Common cousin, our local friend still spends pretty much all of its time zooming around up in the atmosphere when it isn’t nesting or roosting. And yes: that includes during sex.
Vaux’s Swift is considered by scientists to pretty much be the western version of another very similar North American swift, the Chimney Swift. Chimney Swifts (which are named for the fact that they like to roost in chimneys) are found east of the Rockies, while our own Vaux’s swifts are found to the west of the Rockies. Unlike his Chimney friend, the Vaux man prefers to roost in the hollowed-out centers of trees in old-growth evergreen forests, according to All About Birds. Vauxies are also set apart as the smallest swifts in North America — admittedly, it’s by a pretty small margin, but nevertheless, what cool little guys! But these small swifts live in big groups when they breed and migrate, according to Birds of the World, and there are record instances of these fellows roosting at night together in the same tree by the hundreds!
In fact, speaking of roosts — one of the largest known roosting locations for these flying fellas is located right here in Portland! Since the 1980s, a chimney in Chapman Elementary School in northeast Portland has served as a resting place for thousands of migrating Vaux’s Swifts! In September, when the Swifts are passing through the area, hundreds of excited birdwatchers will gather around Chapman Elementary in the evenings to watch the black swarm of tiny little swiftie guys gathered to enter the Chimney. Chapman Elementary itself has worked hard to help the birds have a comfy and cozy vacation home. Back in the ‘90s, when the Chimney was still used to vent fumes from the school’s furnace, they would delay turning on their heating system until as late as mid-October to prevent flushing out the birds (today, the school has a new heating system with a different, un-birdhouse’d chimney). Wow! What an admirable willingness to freeze for the sake of your feathery neighbors!
If you want to see a Vaux’s Swift on campus, you’ll likely have to wait until spring, as these flighty friends have by now headed down to Mexico for a nice, warm winter. Nevertheless, when spring comes, do keep an eye out for these agile aves as they dart around up in the sky. Vaux’s Swift are dark on top with pale throats, but you’ll likely not identify them by color, as they’re usually up too high to make out as anything but a shadow; instead, look for a small bird with long, stiff, crescent-shaped wings and a stubby little body that has often been described as “cigar-shaped.” Their whistling, high-pitched call is difficult to detect in most circumstances. You can differentiate swifts from swallows (which also primarily feed by darting through the air in search of bugs) based on location in the atmosphere, as swallows typically skim for insects lower to the ground, while swifts are located higher up. The next time you spot one of these tiny specks in the sky, give it a wave and welcome back one of the fastest, flyingest birds around! And if you want even more of the vivacious Vaux, don’t forget to head over to Chapman Elementary on a crisp September eve to see the bird swarm of a lifetime!