On The Wing: The Swifts of Chapman School


What in the world are those birds doing and why are all those people watching? Those are the first two questions people ask when they stumble upon the scene documented in On The Wing.

On The Wing tells the story of a remarkable flock birds that became the heart of Portland, OR where people work to coexist with nature instead of smoking it out. The stars of On The Wing are tiny birds called Vaux Swifts that, since the early 1980's, have taken up residence in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School during the month of September.

Each night, thousands of them fill the sky above the school. Just before sunset, the birds form a dramatic vortex and dive into the chimney in an amazing aerial display. In years past, the flock has been estimated to be the largest collection of roosting Swifts in North America at nearly 40,000 birds.

In the early days, when turning on the school's heat would have meant killing thousands of birds, teachers and students chose to wear sweaters until their winged guests flew south. However, some tension within the school and community led the Audubon Society of Portland to get involved and find a permanent solution. The chimney has since been retrofitted and is exclusively for the birds.

Since the early 1990's, the event has become a cult phenomenon in Portland, drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people nightly. The crowd behaves like a mix between football fans and a symphony orchestra audience. They sit at attention in awe of the birds but burst out in cheers and jeers as birds of prey roar through the Swift flock. A band has been named after the birds, t-shirts and water bottles have been printed and the event has become a must see during the fall in Portland.

On The Wing documents the birds' 2007 residency. Interviews with members of the crowd, Chapman Elementary School neighbors and faculty, Portland Audubon members and staff and a cast of characters explain how the phenomenon came to be and how it has evolved into what it is today. Amazing footage of the birds, including a view from inside the chimney, gives audiences an extraordinary, never-before-seen view of the Swifts.

On The Wing is the first feature-length documentary by Real Earl Productions. It marks the directorial debut of Dan Viens, who funded the film himself and made it as a one-man-band.