On August 31st, I hear that the chimney swifts are roosting in the brick chimney at Our Lady Queen of Peace church in Madison, Wisconsin. At summer’s end, swifts mass in great flocks at dusk as they prepare to migrate south.
My husband and I resolve to go there after dinner. It isn’t an auspicious evening: cloudy and spitting with rain. We’re bickering as we get into the car, anxious we’ll be late.
We arrive at 7:10, and I scurry ahead clutching my binoculars, in search of the right chimney. I see nothing in the sky.
We come to an expansive parking lot at the back of the church. Some minivans have pulled up and people are sitting next to them on lawn chairs, chatting companionably. Two women are lying face-up in an empty paddling pool. There are kids of various ages tooling around on the blacktop on bicycles and scooters, impervious to the drizzle.
We join a small knot of birders gathered around an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair wearing a tweed hat, with a plaid woolen blanket tucked round his knees.
I see only two swifts, tiny and high up. They look like cigars on wings, with the same rapid fluttering as bats or scraps of burned paper. But as the minutes pass, they multiply, as if conjured out of the air. Now I can hear their high, sweet chittering.
For a while they swirl around in all directions, but gradually they cohere into loose ovals, the skein bulging this way, then that, above the rooftops. The old man is as excited as a boy. “Mother and I never saw this many!” he exclaims, pointing skyward with a tremulous forefinger, his enthusiasm infectious. “Another first—pretty good for a 91-year-old!” his daughter says, affectionately.
I keep checking my watch. Our necks begin to ache, gazing up. Sunset is at 7:34, although tonight it’s only a glow in the dense cloud. As 7:30 approaches, the chimney seems to exert a magnetic attraction. Individual swifts dive toward it; most pull out of the turn and veer off, but the odd one vanishes.
At one minute before sunset, the flock’s loose swirling picks up energy, like water circling around a drain, and suddenly they’re pouring themselves down the chimney, as if down a funnel, and vanishing.
I imagine the commotion inside the chimney—hundreds of small birds jockeying for a perch on the masonry with their tiny claws. I wonder if they prefer certain spots, higher up or lower down, and how they all get in to such a tight space without colliding or hurting one another.
When all of them are gone, there is soft applause. Someone says, “Sleep well, guys.” I stand leaning into my husband, who has his arms around me from behind. When I turn around, people are dotted all over the parking lot, in twos and threes, staring up, smiling. They have appeared out of nowhere, like the swifts.
It wasn’t a spectacular sunset or a spectacular number of birds—three or four hundred, at most. But there’s a collective sense of peace and pleasure. I resolve to come back at dusk, whenever I can, before they leave.