Too Blue To Fly

As I greeted the rising moon before going to bed a few nights ago, I heard birdsong far off in the woods.  It triggered a distinct memory of sitting in a pickup truck on a red-dirt gravel road, late on a warm summer night. I was supposed to be snoozing while my Dad listened in vain for running foxhounds.  All I heard was the distant, rolling song of a whip-poor-will. 

A couple of nights later, the whip-poor-will’s repetitive cry had been supplanted by the closer and more staccato call of the Chuck-will’s-widow. 

Onomatopoetically-named, both the whip-poor-will and its larger cousin are member of a group of birds called nightjars (reportedly because their call at night is “jarring”).  As far back as ancient Greece, nightjars were called “goatsuckers” for the erroneous belief that they would sneak into barns and steal milk from the livestock.  An odd belief to be sure, but when one sees the small beak pop open to reveal a disproportionately large mouth, it might not be as far a stretch for an ancient pastoralist with a wild imagination. The myth may never be forgotten; the scientific Order of these birds, Caprimulgiformes, is from the Latin Caprimulgus, or “goat sucker”.

Nightjars don’t in fact drink milk.  Their diet consists of insects taken on the wing, supplemented with worms and other ground crawlies.  When swooping on a moth, the whip-poor-will’s deceptively minute beak snaps open, revealing a horror-show mouth that seems to split the bird’s skull wide.  Their maws are edged with whiskers that prompt the birds to snap their beaks shut when their prey brushes them.

Not that you are likely to see a nightjar.  From twilight until full dark – and longer if the moon cooperates – these birds haunt the woodlines and fields.  They are ground nesters, but with such complete camouflage that you are likely to pass right by the unassuming pile of leaves unless your light happens to catch the bright red reflection of their eyes.

Eastern whip-poor-wills lay their eggs in phase with the lunar cycle, so that they hatch, on average, 10 days before a full moon. Perhaps this allows them more hunting light to feed their chicks.

Folks have attached quite a bit of lore to the whip-poor-will.  To some, the monotonous call portended imminent death or approaching danger.  For others, it foretold marriage prospects.  Whip-poor-wills were nature spirits, ghosts of children, or the traveling form for shapeshifters.

Poets and singers laud or curse the calls, including Hank Williams: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/ he sounds too blue to fly. / The midnight train is whining low/ I’m so lonesome I could cry”

I’d be blue too if someone called me a goat sucker.

Such melancholy connotations are undeserved, as there is nothing mournful in the bird’s rapid flute-like tattoo.  I suspect all the feelings of sorrow and loneliness ascribed to these night birds are merely unhappy poets projecting their own misery onto unsuspecting avians.

 For many country folk, the distant lulling call is pleasant night music, while a nearby maddening shrilling banishes all hope of sleep.  However you perceive the songs of nightjars, you won’t hear them as frequently as in decades past.  We can probably lay the lion’s share of the blame for this on the alarming decline of insects over the last century. Less food means less night song.

 Last night, I heard the dueling calls of the nightjar cousins.  The whip-poor-will’s infinite loop swallowed up the Chuck-will’s-widow’s more discrete song, but with concentration I could just make out the larger bird’s contribution to the night sounds.  I hope I will never have a spring or summer without these two nightjars to accompany the evenings.

Additional Resources:

Whip-poor-will song

Chuck-will’s-widow song

Pages for the Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow on the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds

Moon Rhythms 1: Why is a Month?

I committed a small paperwork error a couple of months ago.  Having neither looked at a paper calendar nor run through that old rhyme (you know, “Thirty days hath September…”), I scheduled a trip into the woods for a day when I should have been filling out timesheets.  No big deal.  But it did spur the question of why the months vary when the original astronomical timer – the lunar cycle – does not.

I quickly realized that the history of calendars is a rabbit hole I don’t wish to go too far down.  A couple of links led me to more queries, and more links.  Just going to the Wikipedia article on calendars showed a slew of hyperlinks waiting to keep me up until dawn.  But I’m not writing a book on the subject, so if I can provide enough information to whet your thirst for knowledge, that will suffice.

The lunar month, when measured from new moon to new moon, is around 29.5 days long (there are at least 4 other ways to measure a lunar month, but I think this is probably the most relevant for most people).  The cycle of moon phases as it waxes and wanes in the sky is both consistent and spans a useful length of time, making the cycle a natural point of reference for measuring time.  Not surprisingly, the word for “moon” and “month” are closely related or even identical in a number of language groups; in English, “month” derives from Old English monað, which is cognate to mōna, “moon.”

A lunar-based calendar has the benefit of being applicable to anybody with eyes—you see where you are in a cycle and know how long until you reach a different moon phase.  When measuring longer spans such as seasons or years, however, there are disparities.

The solar year…okay, there are a couple of different ways to measure this, too. You will likely be familiar with the Gregorian calendar – the modern western standard – which uses the tropical solar calendar.  By this measure, the solar year is roughly 365.24 days long.  Twelve lunar months fit within a solar year with 11 days to spare.  The discrepancy of a few days per year adds up, so that after a decade, a given lunar cycle in a 12-month year has crept into another season.  The lunar cycles and solar cycles take some 33 years to match up.

Natural cycles don’t care about conforming to our need for whole numbers. 

People across the world have developed different ways of organizing a year.  Going beyond the lunar calendar, we’ve developed several versions of a lunisolar calendar, which marries the lunar and solar timekeeping systems.  Months still follow the lunar cycle.  Generally speaking, some years have 12 months and others have 13. Determining when to apply these “leap months” requires some calculation to determine and a certain level of education to understand.   

Finally, the solar calendar follows the sun’s apparent cycle through the heavens with no concern for lunar position.  There are several, but the aforementioned Gregorian calendar should be most familiar to you. It still uses months, and the months are similar in length to a lunar month, but lunar cycles drift through our Gregorian months with no real connection.  Well, with one exception: Christian churches overlay a lunar algorithm to determine the dates of certain movable feasts – Easter chief among them.

 There are probably over a dozen calendars – solar, lunar, and lunisolar — in use today, and many, many more during the course of human history.  But I’d wager that the basis for each of them lay in one or both of our most prominent celestial bodies: the moon and the sun.