To South America, they were headed! Where the insect-eatinâs good all winter. They bred in North America over the summer, so they wouldnât even have that pressure when they made it south.
Chimney swifts, theyâre called, because they roost in chimneys. They canât see at night, so they tuck in each evening at sunset. Itâs a sight to behold, a vortex of hundreds of black birds diving into a small hole at dusk. Once inside, they take little pieces of twigs and mix them with their saliva to create a cement-like adhesive that helps them stick to the wall.
Charlotte doesnât have as many chimneys as it once did. Apartment buildings and condos have replaced many old homes, and itâs hard to find a resting place if youâre a traveling swift.
This particular colony checked into some dark cavity somewhere around Second Ward on or before the night of Tuesday, October 15. Left undisturbed, theyâd have stayed until sunrise. But something happened just before 11 p.m. A noise in the hole, or someone sweeping them out. Whatever it was, they couldnât roost there anymore, and they shot out, more than 300 birds, blind in the dark, going toward whatever light they could find.
When weâre kids and we wish that we can fly, itâs never without eyesight, is it? Itâs easy to imagine coasting above the earth and looking down on everyone. Rarely do we consider the view of the visually impaired, flapping toward a blurry streak.
That night, the streak was the NASCAR Hall of Fame building, large-paneled windows wrapped around a bunch of old racecars.
The thumps started around 11 p.m. One after the other. Thump. Thump. Thump.
A security guard rushed outside. Another woman recorded video.
The video hit Facebook and immediately flung around the internet, a sign of end times for people who think like that.
Seeing the little black birds scattered on the ground in Charlotte, outside of a shrine to manmade machines those birds have to dodge daily, people wondered: Is this it?
For the chimney swifts, itâs a real question. Like many other bird species, theyâre declining. The trouble isnât usually windows, or even hot fireplaces, but something else that involves people: insecticides.
Swifts eat up to 12,000 mosquitoes a day, and when those mosquitoes are all filled up on chemicals, so are they. The chimney swiftâs population has dropped more than 72 percent in the past 50 years.
And now here were 310 more. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control gathered the ones that looked to be alive and put them in dog crates. Theyâd do this for all but 13, which were obviously dead, leaving 297 in need of medical attention.
Some animals come here after being picked up by strangers. Some are dropped off because owners canât take them anymore. Others are hurt by cars or some other accident. Sometimes, animal control seizes exotic animals that shouldnât be living in subdivisions. CWR doesnât take cats and dogs, but a couple of donkeys named Jack and Diane live outside the bird area.
Inside, thereâs a Muscovy duck named Bruiser and another named Godzilla. A trio of Dewlap geese travels together everywhere, their pillows dragging on the ground. The staff calls them Fat, Fatter, and Fattest. Thereâs Frankie the blind goose who comes when you call her name. Casper the Canada goose has no beak, but he still fosters other frightened Canada geese when they arrive. And the staff gives Frank, another white Muscovy, hugs before they leave each night.
Itâs a loving place. Outside the front door is a small memorial to some of their favorite birds from years past. Local Girl Scout Troop 571 helps maintain the garden and the plastic headstones. Thereâs one for Mr. T, the âWorldâs Best Turkey,â who died in 2015 just shy of his fifth birthday; Clarence Mother Goose, who lived to be 18; and Pringles, Max, and Groucho, ages unknown.
In other words, itâs a fine place to be dropped off if youâre a dazed and bruised chimney swift.
Of the 297 that arrived, 92 were dead. Freitas and his team assessed the rest and devised medical plans. Ten more had to be euthanized right then. That left 195, about 66 percent of the colony, from this species of bird thatâs been declining at a rate of more than 2 percent a year.
He told the animal control workers heâd take care of them, but they had to do one thing: call off the chicken seizure they had planned the next day.
Now the hard part: Chimney swifts eat every meal âon the wing,â meaning in the air. Theyâre hardly robins, hopping around on the ground and pecking at worms like unruly slobs. The staff and volunteers would have to hand-feed these birds.
Using tongs, they grabbed waterlogged mealworms one by one and tried to convince the sore songbirds to swallow.
Each swift had to be fed once every 30 minutes. It was close to 3 a.m. when the team settled into a rotation: dazed birds in one holding cell, fractured legs or wings in another, eye and head damage in another, fractured pelvis and spinal injuries in another.
âIâve never heard of anything like this,â Freitas kept thinking or saying; he canât remember which in the blur of it all. âIâve heard of 10 or maybe 15 birds crashing into a window at one time.â
At 4 a.m., everybody went to bed, humans and birds.
The next morning, the video from the NASCAR Hall really took off online. People posted screenshots of Hitchcock scenes. Others were reminded of bird incidents elsewhere: There was the blackbird invasion in Scotland Neck in eastern North Carolina in 1969 when the entire sky went dark, according to legend. And the great hawk pass of a couple of years ago, when 6,000 migrating hawks passed over the Blue Ridge Parkway near Sparta in a single seven-hour stretch.
By midday CNN fanned the story: âOver 300 Migrating Birds Smashed into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.â
Some viewers jumped to blame NASCAR, which had just finished a long weekend in Talladega, for leaving the lights on and inviting the carnage. The criticism grew so intense that the local visitorsâ bureau released a two-paragraph statement that included a line: âWe are willing to evaluate potential adjustments that we hope would mitigate future occurrences.â
âItâs not their fault,â Freitas tells me.
Other downtown businesses called the Audubon Society to ask how they could help in the future. They were telling on themselves. Each year in fall, the Audubon begs those same businesses to turn off their lights at night, to help migrating warblers pass through overnight. Few listen. Without lights, after all, how would people see those tall buildings?
The migrating birdsâ worst nightmare became a marketing and awareness opportunity, even if everybody knew the chimney swift accident was a freak occurrence. Last year the Audubon Society found a little more than 95 birds dead from window crashes Uptown in the entire fall migration. This was 300 in a half-an-hour.
Thirty minutes away in Indian Trail, the bleary-eyed Carolina Waterfowl Rescue staff assessed the birds in daylight of Wednesday morning.
Five more had to be euthanized, leaving 190. But then the good news. One-hundred thirty-five could be released. The team loaded them up and took them to Freedom Park and watched them go.
With any luck, theyâd be out of Charlotte before the first frost and on their way to South America again.
The remaining 55 needed more treatment. More food, every 30 minutes.
âCan you swallow it?â volunteer Jacque Junk said, holding a bird in her left hand and a tong pinching a mealworm in her right.
William Dixon, a pharmacist, was next to her.
âThey donât have a voice in our society,â he said, sliding the mealworm down the birdâs throat.
âHey guys,â Freitas interrupted at one point, âweâre gonna have to keep our voices down. Weâre seeing a lot of open-mouthed breathing in the birds.â
Open-mouthed breathing means the birds are stressed.
Just before 5 p.m., news crews showed up for live shots. One reporter asked to hold a bird, and Freitas agreed. The next asked his photographer to take a video of him feeding a swift for social media.
Freitas agreed and kept feeding, now with a syringe and soft food.
Outside the cage, Bruiser and Godzilla and Frank and Frankie and Casper and Fat and Fatter and Fattest and Casper the no-beaked Canada goose waddled around in the dirt. Four buzzards sat on the wildlife centerâs rooftop.
The 55 remaining chimney swifts wonât be here long enough for names. They canât stay past the first frost, which kills the insects, and the staff canât feed them like this all winter. At about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, as the sun set over the trees, the injury report looked like this:
Twenty-six had wing fractures; theyâd probably make it.
Fourteen had head and eye trauma; theyâd probably make it.
Four had leg fractures; theyâd probably make it.
Eleven had pelvic and spinal injuries; they probably wouldnât.
Back in Charlotte, the Audubon Society members went out to assess the chimney situation in this development-obsessed city. If you live in a home, they understand your desire to cap your chimney these days. But theyâd ask that youâd consider an alternative â not capping your chimney.
And, of course, not using insecticides.
And turning off your lights.
As darkness crept over the Charlotte area Wednesday evening, it had been 24 hours since the visiting colony of 300 or so unknown chimney swifts settled into some small hole somewhere near Second Ward.
Freitas sat in a chair in Indian Trail, feeding the birds and setting up heat lamps.
âIâll probably be here all night,â he said.
At the same time, Audubon Society president Malia Kline and her members gathered outside of Big Ben Pub in South End, looking up at a chimney. Several others are worth monitoring each evening this time of year â oneâs at Dilworth Elementary, anotherâs at Covenant Presbyterian.
If you go and look up and youâre lucky, youâll see what Kline and her team saw that night: oneÂ hundred chimney swifts arrived at once, whirled around like a cloud against the pink sky, then dropped into the pubâs chimney, as if sucked out of the sky until tomorrow.