Sep 22, 2020 - News

The return of the chimney swift (the bird), and 7 other stories to watch this fall

Skyline night healthcare

Skyline night healthcare

Fall arrives each year in Charlotte inside the chimneys of old buildings, stuck to the wall. And in this year of no-good news, it gives me great pleasure to report on this first official day of autumn that the chimney swifts are back.

If you’ve been here a year, you remember them; they’re back there in the pre-coronavirus folder of your brain.

The birds migrate through Charlotte every September and October, traveling from as far north as Canada along their international skyway toward South America in search of a winter of unfrozen meals. They gobble up mosquitoes and dragonflies while they fly, 12,000 a day apiece. They’d probably fly and eat all day and night if they could, but nature has a way of keeping us all in check, even the ones who go high.

In the case of the swifts, they can’t see after dark. So each evening at dusk, they circle open chimneys and form a vortex and shoot into the hole to rest, using a mixture of twigs and their saliva to stick to the wall.

Charlotte’s silly-fast redevelopment over the past decade continues to leave the birds with fewer chimneys to rent, so they’ve found other dark places — parking decks or other pockets in skyscrapers.

That’s where about 300 of them were in October last year — somewhere Uptown, sleeping tight — when around 11 p.m., something spooked them. Out of the cavity they flew, blind into the Uptown night. They followed each other into the big showroom window of the NASCAR Hall. Thump, thump, thump, they went, 300 traveling birds, one after the other.

Someone’s recording of the accident got shared and picked up by CNN. People said it was something out of a Hitchcock scene. They said it was a sign that the end of the world was near.

A couple of months later, it was 2020. Touché, swifts.

This has been the year when it seems like what was never will be again. So the return of the swifts, right on schedule, is comforting.

Just shy of halfway through 2020, I wrote an essay titled, “The summer of 2020 will be a defining season for Charlotte.” One week to the day after that story published, tear gas and flash bangs fired up the nights as protesters clashed with CMPD in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

One particularly tough night in Charlotte was the one when police trapped protesters in between walls of gas on Fourth Street, human beings blinded like birds, crashing through a parking deck gate looking for an escape.

It was the summer of disorder and pain in many ways for many people: Tent city, an encampment for people experiencing homelessness, grew and grew. We had a mass shooting on Beatties Ford. We couldn’t agree on masks and reopening, and the fight over the Republican National Convention left nobody on either side terribly happy. Restaurants closed. The city council got a little crazy with ethics complaints. CMS held meetings to discuss reopening plans that were so long the owls were yawning outside.

So what now? Now we enter fall. Perhaps things will be cooler. With a presidential election on its way in 40-some days, and our presence as a swing state, it’s doubtful. Joe Biden’s coming here on Wednesday; Donald Trump is in town on Thursday.

But after the summer prediction became a little too true, I’m staying away from that for fall. Instead, I figured we’d just settle in with a few questions facing the city as we head into the new season. Leave it a little more open-ended.

(1) Will coronavirus let us go peacefully?

Or will North Carolina have another spike before a vaccine? Will Phase 2.5 become Phase 2 or Phase 3, and wait, which one’s better again?

[Related Agenda story: Current status of coronavirus in Charlotte]

(2) What happens to tent city, and with homelessness in Charlotte, especially after the federal eviction moratorium ends at the end of December?

Aside from the virus, this is the number one issue in many Charlotte folks’ minds, whether they’ve interacted with the people there or just driven past the encampment. Homelessness is a thermometer for the health of the city.

(3) How will the Supreme Court nomination play out in Charlotte?

Washington can seem like a faraway land. But Justice Ginsburg’s death sets up a showdown that will be largely about reproductive rights. Charlotte is a daily home for this battle. Specifically, the A Preferred Women’s Health Center on Latrobe Avenue in east Charlotte is where dozens of protesters have gathered for years. They number in the thousands some Saturdays. I live about a mile from there, and spent several Saturdays on Latrobe reporting in the fall of 2018, around the controversial Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. It was a tense place then, it’s been a tense place since, and it’ll certainly be tense now.

Tent City Covid 2020
Photographs by Travis Dove

(4) What’s the future of the local economy?

Can small business hang on? We lost Bill Spoon’s last week. Other longtime establishments are on the edge. Corporations seem strong and anyone in the stock market is doing just fine, and developers keep developing. But what of those who aren’t in the world where money makes money on top of money? What of those for whom money just pays the bills?

(5) How will North Carolina handle absentee ballots?

Nearly a million people in the state have requested them. Some concerns are arising: Last week, Five Thirty-Eight released a startling story that said Black North Carolina voters’ absentee ballots are getting rejected at a rate four times higher than white voters. The reason for a rejected — or “spoiled” — ballot usually has something to do with not having a proper witness signature. The assumption is that the number is higher because many voters of color are choosing absentee for the first time.

bill spoons bbq
Steve Spoon Jr. on Bill Spoon’s last week in business.

Here’s what we can all do, regardless of race: If you’re close to someone who’s elderly or disabled, check on them. The process — filling it out, the rules around returning it, and making sure it gets there safely — can be a special sort of stress for some people.

(6) What are the next steps in policing?

What will come of the case of Harold Easter, who died in a police custody in January? The district attorney said yesterday there’s not enough evidence to prosecute the officers involved, but on October 1, videos from the incident will be released to the public. And of course what will ultimately come of the June 2 Fourth Street incident? And, from a community standpoint, the city is now approaching 200 homicides since the start of 2019 — 107 last year and nearly 90 this year already. An 11-year-old and a five-year-old were hospitalized with gunshot wounds just last night in east Charlotte. Where does this end?


Chief Johnny Jennings has had a wild first few months; it’ll be interesting to see where he takes the department, and if and when things settle down.

(7) So you’re a suburban woman?

What’s your presidential flavor? If you live in the towns ringing Charlotte, experts say the presidential election — and the race for North Carolina’s Senate seat — may come down to you.

And what of the chimney swift?

Glad you asked!

They’ll be gone long before the election, long before any of those things are resolved.

The Mecklenburg Audubon Society is hosting virtual watch parties this fall, for fear of encouraging large crowds of people for the evening ritual. They had a virtual event Monday night.

If you want to see them in person, though, Audubon president Malia Kline says members have reported 700-plus swifts swirling down into chimneys at two high schools — North Meck and East Rowan. In past years, they’ve seen them at several places in Davidson, including the Carolina Inn and Lake Norman Christian. And in Charlotte at Dilworth Elementary, Providence United Methodist, and Sedgefield Middle. Kline just asks that you maintain social distance.

They’ll be here for another few weeks, the swifts.

The other day, photographer Rémy Thurston posted an Instagram story of a colony flying into a chimney in NoDa, and I gasped with delight.

For sore eyes and tired minds, they are a welcome sight, a restoration of some sort of order, soothing in their formation and poses, like if a yoga class had wings, a sign that maybe the end of the world is almost over.

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