Environment & Science

Thousands of migratory birds descend on downtown LA

A column of Vaux's Swifts descend into a chimney at the Chester Williams building located at 5th Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2010.
A column of Vaux's Swifts descend into a chimney at the Chester Williams building located at 5th Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2010.
Julio Morales/KPCC

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For the next few weeks, a swoop of swifts – thousands of small migratory birds - will descend on a chimney in downtown Los Angeles as they make their way from Canada to Central America for the winter.

Under a bright 7-11 sign as daylight fades, I meet Jeff Chapman. He directs the Audubon Center at Debs Park.

"We are standing at the corner of 5th and Broadway in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. We're here because the birds are here. Vaux's Swifts that are heading south to southern Mexico and Guatemala," Chapman says. "They look like, I dunno – little black spots just covering the whole intersection where we're standing, just swirling around."

Chapman's enthusiasm cuts through the chaos of rush hour. As he points, older women, a homeless man and young guys in track suits all follow his hand. Clowning, a kid says, "It's a bird, it's a plane!" Except of course, it is.

They keep gawking as we cross the street. That's the reaction Chapman’s after. "I call it the urban wildlife spectacle," he smiles.

Jewelry store owners in doorways call to us from their wares. We pass neon-lit windows filled with faded telephones and boom boxes. I ask Chapman how long the Vaux's swifts have stopped over here. "There was an artist, his name's Mark and he lives near the old Nabisco building, about 8th and Santa Fe. The swifts used to go into that chimney," he says, the light from a little disco ball in a shop window on his face. "That building was converted to lofts and they got rid of that chimney. So he's been on a mission for the past several years to locate where they went. We found this place last year," he finishes.

We climb five flights, to the roof of a parking structure next to the Chester Williams building. That’s where a growing group of swifts converges. "This is a migratory bird. They spend the winters down in southern Mexico and Guatemala and in the spring they head north. Eventually they wind up in the Pacific Northwest in Canada and Washington state and they breed and have their babies."

These swifts catch bugs on the wing all day long, Chapman says – always flying for food. "Each swift can feed on about 20,000 insects a day, so they like places where there's a lot of bugs. And here in L.A. they hang out along the L.A. River, so all day long they're kind of flying up and down the L.A. River and they pluck off insects," he says.

We watch them, perhaps gulping down their last snacks of the day – unless they get gulped down first. A woman with curly hair makes an approving noise and nods up at the chimney. "The ravens showed up to pick them off as they go in; take them for prey. And I love ravens," she says.

Kara Donohue flashes a mischievous smile behind oval glasses. "I'm a volunteer for Los Angeles Audubon," she says. She finds it easy to root for ravens – not because she's a biologist. "'Cause they're smart. I like any bird that can thrive despite humans." After a pause, she adds, "Or any animal. I like coyotes too."

She hands binoculars to Jeff Chapman. He notes that swifts thrive in places like this, in Oregon, California and Mexico, because of humans. "We're not building incinerators anymore, and in new buildings chimneys that are being built tend to be metal inside," he says. "This is masonry and the brick is rough on the inside, which provides the little ledges and other places for the birds to get a hold on inside there."

Biologists and birders are looking for more stopping points along the swifts’ migration route. To track and count the birds they use cameras and technology – including guides on iPhones, complete with sound. Above a quieter street, the faint chirps of real swifts reach us, recognizable because of the technology.

Chapman explains, "We kind of estimate that 10 birds per second are going in, so when they're streaming in we're usually timing this, and that's how we base our counts."

The swifts scoop circles around the chimney. They bend and turn like schools of bait fish. The poet Mark Jarman wrote about cousins to these birds: "to them there are two worlds – the soot thick shaft and the silky bowl of sky." Seeking rest and safety, they're leaving the bowl. "It looks like smoke coming out of the smokestack in reverse," Chapman says.

This show repeats every night for about a month, with the swoop of swifts growing from a few thousand to at least 10. L.A. Audubon's gathering people to watch at events called Birds Over Broadway – tonight and next Friday. "There's very few opportunities for people to gather together to witness a natural phenomenon," Chapman says, when I ask him why a group event. "This is one of those things. This could bring us together as residents of Los Angeles County and the city of L.A."

The swifts pack tight, safe like shingles inside the brick chimney. Our gaggle of garage-top observers splits up and heads home. Above us two ravens fly off, black and big against blue dusk, with unlucky swifts clamped in their mouths.