The sight of nature meeting the modern world is an annual September delight for Southern Oregonians.
The sky turned dark well before sundown Tuesday as thousands of Vaux’s swifts began a primal dance in the sky. Roughly 200 people pulled out lawn chairs on Hedrick Middle School grounds to watch the migrating birds swirl into a chimney as part of their journey south.
In the span of less than half an hour, a handful of seventh-grade volunteers, aided by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy and Audubon Society, counted 4,341 Vaux’s swifts funneling into Hedrick’s chimney during the first Migration Carnival — an event organizers hope will become a new tradition, while also kicking off a fundraising campaign to make the chimney more hospitable.
Tuesday’s count was the highest recorded so far this year, according to Karen Hussey of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy, who coordinated the carnival. The birds start arriving every year in early September, making nightly layovers in Hedrick’s chimney on their way to winter accommodations in Mexico and Venezuela. By the end of September, the migration will have passed by Southern Oregon.
Counts at the Hedrick chimney began last year, when a high of more than 5,000 swifts was documented.
“It was kind of a neighborhood secret until then, but the birds have been coming for many generations,” Hussey said, describing the roost at the school. “We don’t even know when they started, but it’s been a long time.”
Once upon a time, the swifts roosted in hollowed-out trees on their way south, but they have adapted to chimneys as suitable trees have dwindled, according to Hussey. The species is separate from chimney swifts, and Vaux’s swifts are closely related to hummingbirds.
Since the beginning of the month, student volunteers have been counting birds as they fly into the chimney as part of a citizen-science project. Hussey said Vaux’s swifts usually complete their migration by early October.
The birds will cover about 4,000 miles on their journey and usually travel about 100 miles a day.
Chimneys built earlier than the 1940s are typically suitable for the birds, according to Hussey. In the 1950s, masons began lining chimneys with concrete, which makes the interior surface too smooth for the birds to utilize.
At the carnival, students sported decorated headbands adorned with pipe cleaners and paper cutouts shaped like the birds, and with the aid of South Medford High School cheerleaders enjoyed games such as Migration Hopscotch, which included a lesson about how the swifts eat as many as 20,000 insects and never stop moving throughout the day.
At school, Hedrick seventh-graders have been learning about the birds through lessons in social studies, science, math and English through curricula that Hussey has helped develop with teachers through a $4,000 Rogue Valley Audubon Society grant.
On the grounds near the game area, seventh-grader Cloie Grossman said she had been discussing measures to protect Vaux’s swifts when the chimney at the 1955-built school must be used for its intended purpose: exhausting the boiler.
Options include a permanent cap on the chimney, a temporary cap, or a new heating system that would bypass the chimney.
Costs for a new heating system are estimated at $250,000 — a total that includes removal of the building’s old boiler, some asbestos abatement and an energy-efficient unit, according to Medford School District spokeswoman Natalie Hurd.
The carnival was the first fundraiser toward that goal, according to Hussey, but she didn’t have an estimate for how much was raised at the event.
Those interested in donating toward the project can go to roguevalleyaudubon.org/donate and click the box “Swifts at Hedrick Middle School.”
Those interested in volunteering for swift counts should contact Hussey at email@example.com or call 541-482-3069.