Vaux’s FAQS


This was first written in March 2008.  A March 2010 update is in blue.

What’s a Vaux’s?  Named after Sir William Vaux, this bird is the smallest and most numerous of the swift species in Washington State.  Billy Vaux was English, so it’s pronounced VAWKsiz.

What’s a swift?  A family of birds that spend most of their time in the air catching bugs.  They look and act much like swallows but are more closely related to Hummingbirds.  Their foot structure is such that they can cling, but not perch.  Great pictures can be found at London’s Swifts.

How can I tell a swift from a swallow?  Swift wings have evolved differently from most other birds, and when flying they’re never folded back towards the body.  Swallows can’t seem to stop themselves from doing that.  The difference is in the bone structure of the wing.  Swallows flap their wings from their elbow joint.  Swifts, like hummingbirds have very short fore “arms” and flap from their wrist.

Are swifts swift?  Indeed they are, among the fastest of all birds.

Is a Vaux’s Swift the same as a Chimney Swift?  For now they’re considered to be very similar but different species.  The Vaux’s is found west of the Rockies and the Chimney Swift is east.  The Chimney Swifts have really taken to man made chimneys.  The Vaux’s are slowly being forced to do the same.

Anything special about Vaux’s Swifts?  How about each one consuming up to 20,000 insects a day?  They are an indicator species of the well being of the PNW forest, something like tiny migrating Spotted Owls.

Are they endangered?  They most likely are.  But as these birds are poorly understood and under studied there are few numbers from which to draw conclusions.  They prefer to nest in hollow often broken off trees, which need to be large enough for them to fly inside.  Big old dead or dying trees like this are becoming more and more difficult to find.  The birds have recently substituted chimneys for nesting.  But good old-fashioned brick chimneys are no longer used in new construction and the existing ones are being torn down or sealed.  This is producing a serious nest site shortage.

What’s a HAPPENING?  The Vaux’s Happening is an Audubon and community citizen science project attempting to locate the chimneys in Washington State that are used as group “communal” roosts, during migration.  We also want to count how many birds are using which chimneys when.

How many chimneys in the state are known to be swift migration roosts?  Audubon has a list of 29 sites known to have been used in the past, but any large, open brick chimney is a suspect. In both the north and southbound migrations of 2008 and 2009 we had observers check out 52 different potential Vaux’s Swift roost sites in Washington State.  We documented swifts at 25 of them.

How many birds will spend the night in one chimney?  The Wagner Elementary School chimney in Monroe currently holds the state record of a few thousand. There is a huge chimney at the Chapman School in Portland that has had 40,000.  When they all try to stuff themselves in at the same time, it becomes one of nature’s most spectacular events.  On May 7, 2008 Judy Alles documented 21,027 swifts entering the Wagner chimney.  This is believed to be the largest number ever recorded anywhere for this species in a Northbound migration.

Is there a reason for them sleeping in a large group?  There is probably a survival benefit to this.  They huddle together to conserve body heat so they can slow down their metabolism, maybe enough to hibernate for the night.

Do the swifts spend the night in chimneys in both the spring and fall?  Yes, but there should be a lot more seen when they migrate south in the fall.

Why are there more swifts in the fall?  A pair of Vaux’s Swifts will spend most of the summer raising three to seven young.  If they all survive, two could become nine making the return migration in August.  There may also be other factors involved.

When are the swifts expected to show up?  Going north, the last week of April, and going south the middle to end of August.  Vaux’s Happening has observers posted in central Oregon and on the north shore of the Columbia River to sound the alarm.  Going into the 2010 migration we have partners as far south as Sonora Mexico.  Our first sighting at Wagner in 2008 was 4/16.  In 2009 it was two days later.

How many people will be involved in the springs Vaux’s Happening?  The more the better.

What is expected of a citizen volunteer observer?  Look for Vaux’s Swifts gathering around and then entering a brick chimney in Washington State.  There are report forms at Pilchuck Audubon or send a description of your adventure to Larry Schwitters.

What chimneys will have swifts?  Well that is what we are trying to find out.  We hope to have a list of the sites that have had birds in the past, and a short list of some very large structures to be checked at  Pilchuck AudubonIf nothing else, locate the largest open brick chimney in your neighborhood and go look for the birds.

What time do the swifts come to roost?  They should go into the chimneys just after sunset.  If you are at your location at least 15 minutes before sunset you are probably OK.

How will we know what time sunset is?  Use this website.

What are the chances I will actually find Swifts?  Pretty good if you are looking in Monroe.  If you find them elsewhere it will be a big deal, put a smile on your face, and make you want to brag about it.

What will happen to our reports?  The data will go into the Washington State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife database, down to world swift expert Dr Charles Collins at Long Beach State, and into Audubon’s records.  There are plans for a paper to be written and published on the project. A new listing tool is the online Ebird.  We keep working on that but it’s been a struggle.

Will Vaux’s Happening continue in the future?  That’s the plan, and that’s what it’s going to take to document how much trouble these wonderful little birds are in.  The project has thankfully caught on, and we have identified roost sites from San Diego to the Yukon.  In the two last years over 200 volunteers observers have documented 1,291,803 roostings in 5 states and British Columbia.

How does one sign up?  Email us.

Photo courtesy of PAWS