4,500 migrating birds move into chimney of Vancouver Island museum

Ever since thousands of Vaux’s swifts decided the mothballed chimney at a Vancouver Island museum would make a terrific pit stop on their annual migration north, the task of museum chimney sweep has taken on a whole new meaning.

For a fourth straight spring, huge blurs of the little birds are appearing at dusk, spiralling above the Courtenay Museum before disappearing en masse into the red brick cylinder to roost overnight.

A recent estimate put the number of swifts in the chimney at 4,500.

Nature’s choreography may lead them in, but birds that get in too deep, need help getting out of the chimney.  That’s when museum staff spring to the rescue.

“I went down [to the boiler room] this morning, looked inside the fire box and pulled out 55 swifts that were stuck in there,” said Pat Trask, curator of natural history. “I grabbed, like, five at the time and put them in a rubbermaid tub and brought them outside.” 

| Hundreds of swifts fill the air as they arrive at the museum chimney with a distinctive hum:

Thousands of migrating Vaux’s swifts are roosting in the chimney of the Courtenay Museum. 1:31

Trask is quick to point out the boiler, like the chimney, is out of commission so the birds are safe. 

Vaux’s swifts migrate annually from as far south as Venezuela, to as far north as Alaska. They normally roost in hollow trees, but with disappearing habitat have adapted to human structures.

And that’s a lucky thing for the Courtenay Museum and staff, who are more than happy to play host to the birds and clean up what they inevitably leave behind.

“Yes, there is a pretty big pile,” confirmed Trask.

In fact, the Courtenay Museum has taken to making the chimney as welcoming as possible, every spring removing the cap that keeps out the rain and pigeons because they know the swifts are coming.   

One of the hundreds of Vaux’s swifts that have made a temporary home in the chimney of the Courtenay Museum. (submitted by Pat Trask)

Local bird enthusiast Keith Nicol videoed what he describes as the “swift tornado” last week and posted the footage to social media. 

“It’s a neat episode that happens here in Courtenay every year about this time,” he said. “One of the bird people I talked to said this is very rare in Canada.” 

Some of the Vaux’s swifts roosting in the Courtenay Museum chimney find their way into the out-of-commission boiler and have to be rescued by staff. (submitted by Pat Trask)

According to Trask, the Vaux’s swifts usually stick around the Courtenay Museum for a couple of weeks before suddenly moving on.

“I think they wait for bug hatches to happen north of here,” he said. 

“It’s wonderful to be part of nature’s odyssey. For this little tiny bird to fly all the way from Mexico to Alaska is quite amazing.”

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