This is a small swift, even compared to other Chaetura species, at 10.7 to 11.2 cm (4.2 to 4.4 in) long and weighing 18 g (0.63 oz). The northern populations are slightly larger at 11.5 cm (4.5 in), probably according to the Bergmann's Rule and/or migration requirements. It has a cigar-shaped body, crescentic wings and a short bluntly squared-off tail. The head, upperparts and wings are dusky black, and the underparts, rump and tail coverts are greyish brown. The throat is paler grey, becoming whitish in northern birds. The sexes are similar, but juveniles have dusky bases to the throat feathers.
Distribution and habitat
Vaux's Swift breeds in highlands from southern Alaska to central California and from southern Mexico, the northern Yucatán Peninsula, to eastern Panama and northern Venezuela. The United States' populations are migratory, wintering from central Mexico south through the Central American breeding range. The resident breeding birds in the southern part of the range are sometimes considered a separate species, Dusky-backed Swift, Chaetura richmondi. Preferred habitats include old growth coniferous or deciduous forests consisting of coniferous and deciduous vegetation; requires large, hollow trees for nesting.
This is a gregarious species, with flocks of 30 or more birds, and often with other swift species, such as White-collared, especially at weather fronts. It flies with a mixture of stiff wing-beats and unsteady glides. It has more varied calls than others in the genus, with a mixture of chattering, buzzes, squeaks and chips.
Vaux's Swift breeds in the mountains and foothills, from southeastern Alaska and Montana to central California, mainly above 700 m (2,300 ft). It builds a cup nest of twigs and saliva on a vertical surface in a dark cavity, such as a tree hole, cliff crevice or attic. It lays three white eggs between March and July. It spends winters in the tropics.
- Chaetura vauxi andrei (von Berlepsch & Hartert, 1902): Eastern Venezuela.
- Chaetura vauxi aphanes (Wetmore & Phelps, 1956): Northern Venezuela.
- Chaetura vauxi gaumeri (Lawrence, 1882): Yucatan Peninsula and Cozumel Island (Mexico).
- Chaetura vauxi ochropygia (Aldrich, 1937): Eastern Panama.
- Chaetura vauxi richmondi (Ridgway, 1910): Southern Mexico to Costa Rica.
- Chaetura vauxi tamaulipensis (Sutton, 1941): Eastern Mexico.
- Chaetura vauxi vauxi (J. K. Townsend, 1839): Western Canada to southwestern USA.
Swifts at Chapman Elementary School
The "Chapman swifts" are part of a migratory population of Vaux's Swifts that roost seasonally in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. This is North America's largest concentration of Vaux's Swifts.
Every evening from mid-August to mid-October, thousands of swifts gather in the sky over the school shortly before sunset. Count estimates of 1,700 to 35,000 swifts have been reported. Shortly after sunset, over a period of 10 to 30 minutes, they fly into the top of the brick chimney (constructed c.1925) to roost on the interior surface until they depart at sunrise. The school is on the birds' migratory route to their wintering sites in southern Central America and Venezuela.
The birds began using the site in the early 1980s in response to the loss of much of their natural roosting habitat — old growth Douglas-fir and forest snags. Vaux's Swifts prefer roosting in standing hollow trees.
To protect the swifts, the school stopped using its heating system during the weeks of roosting. Students and teachers wore sweaters and jackets, especially toward the end of September when classroom temperatures can drop to 50 to 60 °F (10 to 16 °C). Around 2003, the Audubon Society of Portland, school fundraisers and corporate sponsors donated $60,000 to $75,000 for an alternate school heating system which is independent of the brick chimney. The chimney is now maintained solely for the use of the birds.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Chaetura vauxi". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- "Chaetura vauxi". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
- Gill F & D Donsker (Eds). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.1). doi:10.14344/IOC.ML.4.1 www.worldbirdnames.org Accessed 9 March, 2014.
- Jessica Martin (producer) (2000). Oregon Field Guide: Vaux Swift (Television production). Oregon Public Broadcasting. Event occurs at 0:02:12 – 0:02:18. Retrieved 2011-03-30. "Because here, not just a few, but up to 30,000 birds swoop down like a tornado at dusk, funneling into this giant chimney. It's the largest concentration of Vaux's Swifts in North America and a birdwatcher's paradise."
- "FAQs". Audubon Society of Portland. August 2010. Retrieved 2011-03-30.
- "Living with Vaux's Swifts". Audubon Society of Portland. Retrieved 2011-03-30.
- "On The Wing: The Documentary Film about Portland's Chapman Swifts—Synopsis". Retrieved 2011-03-30.
- OFG: Vaux Swift, 0:04:30
- "Swifts Leave Chapman School Chimney in October". Hollywood Pet Hospital. Retrieved 2011-03-30.
- OFG: Vaux Swift, 0:05:25
- "Vaux’s Swift". Backyard Bird Shop. Retrieved 2011-03-31.