September 7, 2005
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
At 7:30 pm on August 26th, I was standing in Monroe looking up. A
complex ballet was taking place in the sky above me. Hundreds of small,
cigar-shaped birds were circling overhead, their crescent-shaped wings
propelling them rapidly in the cool evening air. They appeared to be
feeding as they circled, quickly switching directions to catch flying
insects without missing a beat. Periodically, the flock would come
closer together, making a tight, counterclockwise circle over the tall
chimney of the nearby Monroe Elementary School.
They would then disperse again, and
continue to feed above the surrounding parking lot, playground and
neighborhood as if they had collectively decided to catch just a few
more mosquitoes before calling it a night.
A young Vaux's Swift clings to a
carpet that is fastened to the wall of
The birds I was seeing were Vaux's Swifts, and they were congregating
in this area in preparation for their fall migration. About 150 years
ago, I would have been watching this flock as it congregated above the
huge, hollow trunk of an old growth tree, the top of which had broken
off. Swifts cling to vertical surfaces rather than perching on
branches, and the dark inner surface of a hollow tree makes an ideal
night roost for a large flock. Nearly all of the old growth within
several miles of Monroe Elementary School was removed decades ago, and
there was certainly no sign of a forest visible in the pavement on
which I was standing. But the nearby chimney conformed to the swifts'
paradigm of a suitable roosting site. It was tall, hollow and had a
dark, rough interior to which they could easily cling. The 1,000 or so
swifts that were circling overhead would soon be retiring to the
chimney for the evening, but before they did, they would be welcoming
eight new members to their flock.
Vaux's Swifts prefer not only to roost in hollow trees, but also to
nest in them. As chimneys have become substitute night roosts for the
birds, they have also become substitute nurseries. A swift nest is a
shallow cup of small twigs held together by a sticky mass of saliva.
Saliva is also used to attach the nest to a vertical surface, be it the
inside of a tree or inner wall of a chimney. Occasionally the nest
gives way under the weight of the young, and topples to the bottom of
the nest cavity. This isn't a disaster if it happens inside a hollow
log. The young swifts are able climbers, and they can work their way
back up the tree to a point at which their parents can continue to feed
them; however, when a nest falls inside a chimney the young often
tumble down into the fireplace where smooth walls prevent them from
gaining any foothold. Such was the case with the swifts raised at the
PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitation Center this summer.
The swift's small, curved claws allow the
bird to cling to vertical surfaces, but it is
incapable of perching horizontally.
Six of the swifts that PAWS received were siblings that had been found
in a Seattle fireplace. After a short stay at Seattle Animal Shelter,
the young birds arrived at PAWS on July 17th. A seventh nestling swift,
this one from Olympia, arrived on July 20th, and an eighth arrived on
July 21st from Snohomish. The young birds were initially housed in a
darkened cage that simulated the conditions that would be present at
their nest sites. A cloth hung on one wall of the small cage gave them
a vertical surface on which to cling. They were fed every half hour,
and their noisy, chattering calls could be heard throughout the center
at each feeding.
After a few weeks in their darkened cage, the swifts had grown in all
of their flight feathers. They were moved to an outdoor aviary to begin
strengthening their flight muscles for release.
One of the swifts makes a break for
In the aviary, the swifts clung to special rugs that had been attached
to the wall. They began to fly, and their stamina and skill quickly
increased. Since swifts are only able feed themselves while in flight,
the young birds continued to require regular hand feedings during their
entire stay at PAWS. At 6:30 pm on August 26th, a bird nursery
caretaker gave them the last meal they would have to eat in captivity.
I then placed them in release carriers and headed to Monroe.
The swirling mass of swifts circling above Monroe Elementary School was
mesmerizing. I stood and watched them with PAWS wildlife director
Jennifer Convy, wildlife rehabilitator Peggy Faranda, humane educator
Julie Stonefelt, and intern Tamara Hollinger. After a few minutes, we
moved around to the back of the building, and placed the two release
carriers containing the PAWS swifts on the ground in a grassy
playfield. Tamara and Jennifer did the honors, opening the carriers to
set our captives free. One by one, the young birds exited the carriers,
and as soon as they were airborne they rapidly circled upward to join
the congregation of swifts overhead. Within seconds they were absorbed
by the flock, and became indistinguishable from the others. In their
excitement, a few of the swifts had difficulty getting out of the
release carrier, and Jennifer reached in to give them a helping hand.
Once they had cleared the box, their difficulties were over, and they
joined their former cage mates above. We continued to watch, looking at
the flock with a much different feeling now that our former charges
were a part of it.
The flock retires for the evening.
Around 8 pm, as the light really began to fade, the swifts began to
make tighter and tighter circles around the school. Several minutes
passed, and the birds' behavior began to change. It started slowly with
a swift or two periodically dropping down the chimney and out of sight.
It then accelerated, and soon a steady stream of birds was funneling
downward into the dark opening. It looked as if the chimney was a giant
vacuum hose sucking small particles from the air. The large flock began
to shrink in size as more and more of the swifts disappeared into their
brick sleeping chamber. As quickly as it had started, it was over. The
last of the swifts entered the chimney, and the sky was empty. We stood
for a few more minutes, excitedly discussing the spectacle that we had
just witnessed, and then we headed home. As we left, I imagined that
somewhere in the darkness of that chimney, there were eight small
lights shining more brightly than they had ever shined before.
See A Very Cute Crow Picture! (on the "Wild Things" donation page)
Team "Wild Things" has now broken the $3,000 mark, but we only have two
more days to raise the funds needed to beat last year's total of
$5,400. Whether you give a little or a lot, any amount will help get us
closer to our goal. If you would like to make a pledge to support the
"Wild Things", or if you would simply like to see the very cute crow
picture mentioned above, please click here: https://www.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=
PAWSwalk benefits all of the animals that PAWS cares for through
sponsorships, registrations and pledges. I hope you can join us for
this day of fun, celebration, and support for the animals!
Wild animals released between August 24 and September 5, 2005:
All rights reserved. ©2005 Progressive Animal Welfare Society
5 Bewick's Wrens
3 Spotted Towhees
3 Cliff Swallows
2 Barn Swallows
8 Vaux's Swifts
8 Virginia Opossums
1 American Crow
3 House Finches
1 Cedar Waxwing
1 Western Tanager
5 Eastern Cottontails
1 Red-breasted Nuthatch
2 Townsend's Chipmunks
1 Western Painted Turtle
440 wild animals have been released since the beginning of 2005.
A Northwest leader in protecting animals since 1967,
the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelters homeless
animals, rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife, and empowers
people to demonstrate compassion and respect for animals in their daily