Did you ever hear a rushing, whirring, booming sound as though wind were blowing across the bung-hole of an empty barrel?
The nighthawk, who makes it, is such a high flyer, that in the dusk of the late afternoon or early evening, when he delights to sail abroad to get his dinner, you cannot always see him; but as he coasts down from the sky—not on a sled, but on his half-closed wings—with tremendous speed, the rush of air through his stiff, long wing feathers makes an uncanny, aeolian music that silly, superstitious people have declared is a bad omen. You might think he would dash out his brains in such a headlong dive through the air, but before he hits the earth, a sudden turn saves him and off he goes unharmed, skimming above the ground and catching insects after the whip-poor-will’s manner. He lacks the helpful bristles at the ends of his fly-trap. Don’t imagine, because of his name, that he flies about only at night. He is not so nocturnal in his habits as the whip-poor-will. Toward the end of summer, especially, he may be seen coursing over the open country at almost any hour of the day. Once in a while, as he hunts, he calls peent—a sharp cry that reminds you of the meadowlark’s nasal call-note. Presently, mounting upward higher and higher, at the leisurely rate of a boy dragging his sled up hill, he seems to reach the very clouds, when down he coasts again, faster than a boy’s flexible flyer. Listen for the booming noise of this coaster! Evidently he enjoys the sport as much as any boy or girl, for he repeats his sky-coasting very often without having to wait for a snow-storm. Indeed, when winter comes, he is enjoying another summer in South America. Life without insects would be impossible for him.
When he is coursing low above the fields, with quick, erratic, bat-like turns, notice the white spots, almost forming a bar across his wings, for they will help you to distinguish him from the whip-poor-will, who carries his white signals on the outer feathers of his tail. Both of these cousins wear the same colours, only they put them on differently, the whip-poor-will having his chiefly mottled, the nighthawk his chiefly barred. The latter wears a broader white band across his throat. His mate substitutes buff for his white decorations.
Like the mother whip-poor-will, she makes no nest but places her two speckled treasures in some sunny spot, either on the bare ground, on a rock, or even on the flat roof of a house. Since electric lights attract so many insects to the streets of towns and villages, the enterprising nighthawk often forsakes the country to rear her children where they may enjoy the benefits of modern improvements.
Both the nighthawk and the whip-poor-will belong to the goatsucker family. Did you ever hear a more ridiculous name? Eighty-five innocent birds of this tribe, found in most parts of the world, have to bear it because some careless observer may have seen one of their number flying among a herd of goats in Europe to catch the insects on them, just as cowbirds follow our cattle; and he imagined the bird was actually drinking the goat’s milk!
Text: Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje Blanchan
Author of “Bird Neighbours,” “Birds that Hunt and Are Hunted,”
“Nature’s Garden,” and “How to Attract the Birds.”
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP
1907 by Doubleday, Page & Company
Title Common nighthawk
Alternative Title Chordeiles minor
Creator Kramer, Gary
Description A common nighthawk rests on a fence post.
Subject Birds, Perching birds
Publisher U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Date created 2012-01-12