A feature-length documentary film recently released tells a unique story about the tens of thousands of Vaux Swifts which seasonally use a large chimney in Portland Oregon.
"On the Wing" was produced by Dan Viens, a resident near the roost at Chapman Elementary School where nearly 40,000 swifts congregate and use the buildings' chimney as a roost during the autumn. The school was built in 1923, Viens said, and the chimney is believed to be part of the original structure.
Vaux Swifts entering the school chimney. Images courtesy of Dan Viens.
"When I made this movie, I was looking for a project to take on independently," Viens said. "My only concern was that I have a stake in the subject of the film. Since the swift roost was right in my neighborhood I gravitated to it. I was shocked to find that no one had made such a film before and as I discovered more and more about the birds, their observers and the backstory I knew I had found something special.
"Since the early 1990s, the event has become a cult phenomenon in Portland, drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of onlookers nightly to watch the stunning display," Viens describes on his website for the celebrated film. "There are some people who say they saw some swifts long before the 1980s although no official record of this exists."
"The crowd behaves as a hybrid of college football fans and a symphony orchestra audience," Viens said. "The film weaves together comments from everyone involved to tell one story. Comments come from watchers, teachers, students, Audubon members, Audubon employees, wildlife biologists, neighbors and a band named after the birds. There is no narrator or voice over in the film."
"The coordination and dissonance of the birds is fascinating," Viens said of the evening spectacle when the swifts gather before they enter the chimney for the night. "Watching them amass and swirl in their choreographed way makes it seem as if they are sharing a common mind. Then all of a sudden they disperse. It could be a predator or a perceived threat, but it's just amazing to watch them fly off at the drop of a dime.
"Watching the birds come out in the morning is also incredible. The time and duration is not as predictable as in the evening, but the birds look like champagne bubbles or popping popcorn as they exit the chimney. The first time I saw this display was when it really clicked that there was definitely a documentary there to be made.
"On the Wing" documents the residence of the Vaux Swifts during 2007. It premiered October 2, 2008 at Cinema 21 in Portland to a sold out house, Viens said. "The screening was a benefit for The Audubon Society of Portland. I expected the film to play at Cinema 21 for a night. However, it played for two weeks and more than 2,000 people came to see it."
"Throughout the process of making the film, I had no idea whether I would be successful in my endeavor to create the finished product and at the beginning I wasn't thinking about an audience. I just thought it was important that I create something to contribute to the neighborhood and the artistic community at large in Portland."
The film about swifts was not Viens' first foray into cinematography, as during his undergraduate education at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he made a handful of short films, he explained in an email. "My digital experience began during graduate work at The University of Colorado Boulder. After college, I made a concert film and some corporate instructional videos. Along the way I kept myself busy making fun videos of my friends, my dog and my travels with my wife. However, when I moved to Portland I was determined to take on a big project and see it through to completion."
"The film has been amazingly well received," Viens said. "I had no idea what the result would be or whether anyone besides my wife and dog would see it."
There are two editions of the film. "The first is the one that played theatrically in Portland, aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting in January 2009 and is can be purchased on DVD," Viens said. "That edition is 60 minutes. There is also a half hour (26 minute) broadcast edition which is currently being made available to public broadcasters nationwide. So it may air on local Public Broadcasting System affiliates in the near future."
Another view of the Vaux Swifts entering the school chimney.
"On the Wing" was also the feature podcast for a month at lifeonterra.org.
Viens has sold DVDs across the entire country and has setup screenings through local Audubon Societies in the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Tallahassee, Florida.
"Viewers of the film say that it captures the swifts, the phenomenon and their following in a way that people didn't think was possible," Viens said. "I have also heard many times that it captures the spirit of Portland very well. Many people who I've spoken with have purchased DVDs to send to far away friends so they can get a feel for our great city.
"Keeping these roosts alive is a reminder that, even in the city, we share our word with nature."
Viens stressed the importance of conserving the roost site at Chapman Elementary and other other roosts used by swifts.
"In the film Audubon Society Urban Naturalist Mike Houck says that like any animal, there is no telling what a reduced population of Vaux swifts could mean for the surrounding ecosystem. In my opinion it is a special, but tragic gift that these birds have to use chimneys as opposed to their natural habitat of old growth snags."
Viens "will continue promoting the film and the notion of living in harmony with nature by allowing any organization to show the film freely to the public. I am happy to work with anyone who wants to set up a screening of the film."
He may contacted through the email provided at the Swifts Movie website.