Seeking Out Swifts in Downtown LA

A Q&A with Jeff Chapman, Senior Manager of Interpretation and Training at the Natural History Museum of LA County

Every early autumn, and again in the spring, the late afternoon skies in Downtown LA become dotted with Vaux's swifts - a species of small, fast-flying black birds who make temporary residence in Downtown along their migratory path. Though this year, we didn't notice the same concentration of them as in other years. To learn more about the birds and what's changing their habits, we spoke with Jeff Chapman from the Natural History Museum (NHM).

GDT: Tell us about Vaux’s swifts. Why is it that they migrate through Downtown LA?

JC: Vaux’s swifts are really cool birds - they’ve been described as cigars with wings. Like a lot of birds, they migrate from the south where they winter to the north where they breed their young. In the spring months they travel from Central America and Southern Mexico up through Mexico and along the Pacific Coast heading towards Canada, and we just happen to be a great stop along that route both coming and going because of food resources and other things the birds need to survive. They eat primarily flying insects, which there are tons of in the sky, that they feed on all day long. They fly all day long, they never perch and never land, until at night when they form these amazing roosts we see in Downtown LA, which they do in other places too like Downtown San Diego or along the San Francisco Bay, and up through the whole Pacific Flyway.

GDT: Do they specifically seek out urban environments like Downtown LA?

JC: It’s kind of a coincidence that we have the habitat requirements they need. Not only do we have an abundance of insects, but they also require these cavernous cavities to roost at night. Because we’ve deforested and our habitat has changed over the years, they’ve found old brick chimneys to be analogous to roost in say a burned-out redwood tree. Historically they likely used sycamore trees or cottonwood trees that would have been found along the LA River.

GDT: How did you come to learn about and track these Vaux’s swifts?

JC: I formerly worked for the Audubon Society in Los Angeles. I was contacted in 2010 by someone who was organizing people along the entire West Coast of the US looking for these birds. He was very interested where the birds were seen in Los Angeles. I also connected with an artist named Mark who lives down near Santa Fe and the 10. The birds used to roost in the Nabisco Building down (in the Arts District) and he used to watch them there back in 2006. Around that time, that building was renovated and the chimney disappeared, so Mark was also on a parallel mission to find where they had gone. He located the roosting site at 5th/Broadway at the Chester Williams Building in 2010.

GDT: What chimneys are the swifts currently living in?

JC: The only site we know of at this point is the Spring Arts Tower, located behind the building off the alleyway on 5th St. I’ve watched the swifts from Spring St Park, that’s a good vantage point to see them roosting. 

GDT: There are of course a lot of changes happening to the Downtown environment - a lot of construction, changes of use. Is this impacting the swifts?

JC: I’ve been documenting this process with my colleague at the Natural History Museum, Kimball Garrett, who has been watching swift's here since the 90s. He would track them at a building at 9th and Hill. That building chose to put up barriers to keep the birds out of the building. Then the Nabisco Building changed uses and the swifts were unable to roost there. In 2010 is when we located the roosting site of the Chester Williams Building. At the time, it appeared to be vacant. But slowly we started noticing more activity and it was of course converted into a residential building, so then the owners put a barricade over that chimney. And, frankly, the Spring Arts Tower has erected a barrier to exclude the birds from entering as well. I’ve met with folks from these buildings, and it’s tough because when you have 20,000 birds in a chimney, hanging out on the walls, they’re pooping, doing other things, and that can be really not a pleasant thing for people who are living and working in a building near these chimneys.

GDT: But even with the current barricade on the chimney, birds are still getting in?

JC: To some extent, yes. I noticed some this season but nothing like the amount we used to see historically. So they may have spread out a bit and are using new locations we haven’t determined yet.

 A brick chimney in the Historic Core was for several years a temporary home for Vaux's swifts. (image via  LA Weekly )

A brick chimney in the Historic Core was for several years a temporary home for Vaux's swifts.
(image via LA Weekly)