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