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The Bird Lady of Kenton asks, 'Where oh where did my little birds go?'

By Casey Parks
The Oregonian

The Bird Lady of Kenton watched and waited, but the swifts never came.

The Bird Lady of Kenton asks, 'Where oh where did my little birds go?'

Garland Horner still watches the yellow chimney, hoping to see swifts. Casey Parks.

The Bird Lady of Kenton watched and waited, but the swifts never came.

She blamed the weather, herself and the autobody shop next door.

Sometimes birds just change course, experts at the Audubon Society of Portland told her. The number of Vaux's swifts migrating to the Chapman Elementary School chimney was down this September, too.

Still The Bird Lady kept searching. Night after night, she sat through dusk, hoping the familiar tornado of birds would appear again.

Now, as the migration season concludes, 75-year-old Garland Horner still wonders, "Where, oh where, have my little birds gone?"

'The sky was just black'

Horner had expected to spend her retirement weaving.

She and her husband Jim had run the Insulated Windows shop out of a North Denver Avenue building since the 1970s. When they retired four years ago, they transformed the top floor into an apartment, the roof into a patio.

That September, she was outside watering plants. She heard the creatures before she saw them.

"Then the sky was just black," she said.

Neighbors said they were bats funneling into the Mackin's Auto Body chimney next door. But Horner's roof is just feet away from the garage. She stood close enough to see their eyes, she said, close enough to see they were birds, not bats.

But what kind? Horner could tell a crow from a swallow, but she did not recognize these. She called the Audubon Society.

"They're blue and gray and the size of a cigar," she told the experts.

Conservationists told Horner she probably had swifts, the four-inch birds who pass through Portland each September on their way to Central America.

The nonprofit sent counters out to Horner's roof. Swifts have been migrating to Chapman School since the 1980s. A few dozen birds will roost in a few other parts of town, too. But thousands descending on North Portland every night? That was new.

That first year, Horner had a party every night. There were avian-themed cocktails and potluck dinners. A fourth grader designed a Kenton Swifts logo. T-shirts were made, a tiara produced.

The neighbors dubbed Horner "The Bird Lady." They called her the "Queen of Kenton," too.

She played host to garden clubs and preschool field trips. The Audubon Society counted more than 3,000 birds one night. Her husband promised to pay $5 to anyone who found swift scat in their drink.

"The kids used to hold their cups out, hoping to catch poop," Horner said.

When hawks perched on the yellow chimney, The Bird Lady brought out a bucket of rocks. She'd bang a shovel against the bucket until the hawk flew away.

When another Kenton resident found a dead swift on the sidewalk -- a hawk's bite marks still fresh on the neck -- she brought it to Horner, who kept it in her freezer for two years.

"It freaked my girls out, but it wasn't contaminating anything," Horner said. "I kept it wrapped up unless I was showing it off."

She'd drag a chair out to the roof's edge every morning to watch the birds leave. They came out "like popcorn," she said, a few sporadic jolts before an explosion.

Swifts do everything in the air, she learned. They mate, eat and drink without ever touching land. One still-dark morning last fall, Horner was watering her plants when she thought to direct the hose into the air.

"They swooped, and they swooped," she said. "They were drinking."

When they flew away the final morning, she waved. See you next year, she thought.

Solving the mystery

The Bird Lady prepped all summer. She and her husband laid down tiles of recycled tire for a nicer surface. They brought out several tables and commissioned a mural. They put up pergola gazebos, too.

Then, a month before this year's migration, Horner developed vertigo. Her husband has cataracts, so they could no longer care for the six chickens -- Salt, Pepper, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Curry and Mr. Beautiful -- she had kept in a coop on the roof. She gave the chickens and the coop to another North Portland family.

When the swifts didn't show the first week in September, she wondered if they could no longer find her. Had they been using the 12-by-12-foot coop as a marker?

She called the owners at Mackin's. Had they done anything to make their chimney less bird-friendly? They hadn't, they said.

"It's the temperature," said Audubon Society avian conservationist Joe Liebezeit. When it's hot, he said, swifts scatter in trees.

She waited for the nights to cool. Temperatures dropped, but the birds didn't show.

Finally, she heard from a friend that people were seeing the birds a few miles down the road at The St. Johns Twin Cinemas.

"I was saddened," she said. "I thought, 'Well, the amenities must be better over there.'"

The garden clubs stopped coming. The preschoolers did, too. Still, every night Horner waited until dusk.

"Not even a lonely bird came," she said.

Finally, she went back to weaving and doing housework. Her husband said she has moped ever since.

"It's like she's lost her meaning and purpose in life," Jim Horner said.

Then a week or so ago, Horner got an email. Birders call Larry Schwitters "Dr. Swift." The Issaquah, Wash., man is known the world over as the expert.

He told Horner guano build-up could be an issue. Or predators might be driving swifts out of the Portland area, he said. In addition to the decline at Chapman School, Oregon City's population dwindled from 7,000 last year to 500 birds this year. But San Francisco birdwatchers reported their highest number of swifts yet.

Schwitters suggested playing a recording of the swifts' calls near the chimney. No one has tried it with Vaux's swifts, he said, but it has worked in Europe with the common swift.

It's too late to do this September. But come next year, The Bird Lady will be ready.

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