Coming Up on Swift Time

Chimney swifts, common in the central and eastern portions of the US, are widely celebrated for their habit of nesting in chimneys and spiraling “home” at dusk. In the western US, we have our Vaux’s swift, which uses chimneys at migration time, but prefers hollow trees for nesting. Our smaller swift occupies the Pacific Northwest up into northern BC, and it is every bit as entrancing as its eastern cousin. With its communal spirals into evening roosts during migration, it is now preparing to head south. My birding homeys calling these coming weeks “swift time.”

The Bird Identification Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the information below. Its name is English, with a hard “x” as in “box,” in honor of William S. Vaux, compliments of John K. Townsend, a contemporary of Audubon.

The scientific name for Vaux’s swift is Chaetura vauxi. It is the smallest swift in North America. Both sexes are about 4.3 inches long, with narrow wings spanning 11 inches, weights to three-quarters of an ounce and a wide mouth. It is generally seen only in its rapid flight and is widely described as “a cigar with wings.” Both sexes are brownish-gray overall, with lighter rump and breast areas. Its short tail is squared off at the end, not notched. It forages in flight over clearings and ponds and streams, on flying insects and the occasional spider.

The birds arrive here in late April and early May. Nesting is often communal, by the hundreds or thousands, in coniferous or mixed forest, although they will be found below the lower tree-line in residential areas here in the east. The dramatic, spiraling, headlong rush into the roost tree or chimney at nightfall is what enthralls birders and observers.

Cupped nests are of small twigs or evergreen needles broken off in flight and glued to the walls of hollow tree snags (rarely in a chimney) with sticky saliva. Our small swifts can only perch vertically and must cling to hollowed out trees or old, generally pre-1940, chimneys (newer chimneys have linings which do not allow good claw holds). Those strong sharp claws enable the birds to easily move around on vertical surfaces to manage nesting and resting. Both parents will brood the four to seven white eggs (just under three-quarters of an inch long). Young will hatch in two to three weeks and will leave the nest at three weeks. Both parents – and other swifts – will feed the youngsters small balls of insects.

Vaux’s will winter south in California and on into Central Mexico, leaving the eastern portion of the state over the next few weeks. By late October, they will be gone from the other side of the Cascades, too. Our swifts are just now at the beginning stages of gathering numbers and spiraling into temporary roosts at dusk all over the Northwest. THAT is what makes this “swift time!”

This swift time is a big deal on several levels. People are dazzled by those spiraling roosting birds, of course. The birds eat significant numbers of insects we see as pests personally and commercially. And those old chimneys are disappearing; with their loss comes serious concerns about the apparently shrinking numbers of our western swifts.

Since the 1980s, perhaps the largest celebration of Vaux’s swifts happens in Portland during the September-long “Swift Watch” at the Chapman School. As many as 2,000 people will gather of an evening to watch thousands of the tiny, noisy, birds “swooping and swirling like a cloud of pulsating black ink as they circle a tall brick chimney silhouetted by the fading light.” Folks from as far away as Europe will sit or lie with blankets and picnic baskets, cheering a flock of swifts pouring into the school’s chimney “like water spiraling down a drain!” The tradition is so embedded in Portland lore that the little Vaux’s swift is the Chapman School mascot. Find more, including counts of birds (by date) and info about the Portland Audubon’s activities during its Swift Watch at

Learn more about the swifts of Paradise and where to watch. Larry Schwitters, with Rainier Audubon, has a “Vaux Happening” site with several ways to learn and play. Check it out at Seattle Audubon, at, is worth your time, too (just punch in “Vaux’s Swift” and hear the sounds of these birds). For a broader view, see (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page). For hardcopy resources, check out The Birder’s Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun and Zim, or any good field guide.

For many years, here in Ellensburg, Washington, we celebrated and counted Vaux’s swifts swirling into the chimneys of the old hospital (torn down – no more chimney) and Morgan Middle School (gone, also, with the remodel). You can still be dazzled by them as a few dozen spiral into the old chimney on the southeast corner Fitterer’s Furniture at the corner of 4th and Main. (See Monica Fletcher’s YouTube video from last October: “Vaux Swift Gathering Ellensburg…”) Watch from the Main Street sidewalk or that classy private parking lot, but be respectful of the private ground there. There are rumors of the swifts finding other chimneys here in town, but I can’t confirm them. There are, apparently, a couple good watching sites in Yakima – to be passed along in future columns.

We are witnessing first-hand the regional and national trend of lost and capped-over old chimneys. Many are looking for solutions, and that is another week’s discussion.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized