GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Vaux’s swifts are finding “no vacancy” signs at some of their favorite motels these days.
These birds migrate along the West Coast twice a year, stopping off for overnight stays between their 50-mile daily flights. They flock together out of the weather to keep warm all night, then hit the friendly skies again in the morning.
“They kind of stack up inside a hollow tree or chimney,” said Karen Hussey with the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy. She’s been helping to track the swifts with an Audubon Society-sponsored citizen science project and is hoping more volunteers will join her.
Hussey spoke last week about the Vaux’s (rhymes with “foxes”) swifts to the Audubon meeting in Grants Pass, The Daily Courier reported .
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“We’ve been able to gather a lot of information just from the volunteer work so far,” she said. An online map shows big and little circles where large and small numbers of swifts are roosting on their migrations.
The swifts once relied on old-growth hollow trees to crowd into at night. As those became scarce, they switched to warmer brick-lined chimneys, especially those on large buildings or factories.
But since 1941, chimneys are lined inside to be more fireproof. New ones are not brick, which makes it hard for birds to grip, and the old ones are being demolished all along the swifts’ migration route. Others are being capped to keep birds and other critters out.
The Vaux’s swift numbers have been tumbling — down 57 percent since 1966, according to the Breeding Bird Survey, the major study of birds in North America.
The project, which can be found at vauxhappening.org, is to locate migration stopovers and count swifts on a nightly basis during their sojourns in spring and fall.
Some sites host hundreds of birds a night. Some host thousands.
The information can also lead to protection for the swifts’ favorite spots.
For instance, when Hussey went to Hedrick Middle School in Medford to do a presentation on the swifts last year, she knew the school had a chimney that was used by swifts. In fact, thousands come and go from the school — so many that the school district had ordered the chimney capped.
Hussey, teachers and students did some swift education and showed how the school’s swifts were a great taking off point for learning about science, math, history and other subjects.
They put together a swift curriculum for almost every class.
Rather than capping the chimney, the school has turned into a swift sanctuary where students participate in counts and enjoy “swifting,” which is watching the birds come and go at dawn and dusk.
This past fall, Hedrick hosted its first swifting party for the community.
They were inspired by a Portland area school that saved its old chimney thanks to grants that helped put in a new heating system and retrofit the chimney in case of earthquakes.
Now the school hosts swifting events that bring in thousands. Students even adopted the “cigar-with-wings” shaped birds as their mascot.
Three spots in Jackson County are currently watched and counted by project volunteers, but finding stopover spots in Josephine County is another matter, said Lee Webb, Audubon member and longtime bird watcher.
“The old Washington School and a house near the intersection of Evelyn and Washington were the only places locally where I saw large numbers of Vaux during migration some 20 years ago,” said Webb, noting the former school’s chimney was removed recently, while the house chimney was capped “some years ago.”
“At both of the ‘old’ big Grants Pass sites, it was a real treat to watch Vaux’s swifts zoom in and out of the chimneys at breakneck speed,” Webb said. “During migration, several dozen or more folks would bring chairs and sit across the street, to watch the swift show.”
In addition to providing a show of aerial maneuvers, what do swifts do for us, you might be asking.
“They eat up to 20,000 insects a day,” said Hussey. Per bird.
Information from: Daily Courier, http://www.thedailycourier.com