Somehow, most birders can better explain why nightjars, like the Whip-poor-will or Common Poorwill, are called “goatsuckers” than “nightjars.” This is so even though “Nightjar” is the widely accepted term for the birds, at least in the U.S.
Goatsucker, after all, is easy enough: Europeans, like Aristotle, once believed that the European Nightjars suckled goats at nights, blinding the mammals.
The “night” in “nightjar” is easy enough, too. Nightjars and nighthawks are mostly crepuscular and, to a lesser extent, nocturnal birds. They’re most active, singing and feeding, at dawn, dusk, and the hours in between.
But why “jar?” Nightjars have lived under other, similarly confounding names: “eve-jar” and “eve-churr.”
As with much of the symbolism surrounding the bird, the word comes back to their song. The word “jar” (and “churr”) to refers to sounds.1, 2
“Churr” is more narrowly related to sounds bird are credited with making — trilling, most notably. The word itself also has, to my ears, an aural quality. A churr sounds to me like the sound of an animal churring.
“Jar,” however, has all sorts of notes of meaning. It can just refer to a sound. But it can also refer to a “harsh inharmonious” combination of sounds. This description of the Nightjar’s sound makes more sense when applied to the European Nightjar, which sings more like a trilling insect or a haunted door than does the Whip-poor-will (which sings more like a country-folk singer).
“Jar” can also refer to the tick of a clock. It refers, too, to a quivering or grating sound.
And then there are the meanings that carry the human psyche with them. We can find a sound, a movement, another, a disagreement, or the world itself jarring.
As a verb, the word can refer to the act of making a grating sound. It can mean to cause something — our teeth, our nerves — to vibrate, uncomfortably or painfully.
Many of these meanings to “jar” are newer than the name “Nigthjar.” And yet some of the folklore surrounding the bird — their assaults of domestic animals, the omens of death they were understood to bring — are suggestive of the multiple meanings of “jar.”
The “Nightjar” is a jar for the sounds it makes — its trilling song. But the song itself might be jarring, an omen of impending death. Or the song may sound like the tick of a clock — there were some who believed that the number of times the Whip-poor-will repeats its song is a measure of the number of years to the listener’s death.
Even today, when the Nightjar’s song may mean only our lonesomeness or our nostalgia for a lost world, we remain jarred by the jar of a Nightjar.
Birders refer to “owling” to describe the act of going out at night to look for or survey for owls. Far less commonly used is the word “night-jarring.” I’ve never heard a birder use this verb, in fact. And the few written references I’ve seen to it — (in, admittedly, thirty seconds of investigating it) — refer more to the jarring nature of the encounter with night-jars than the act of seeking encounters with nightjars.
Perhaps we ought to bring this word into the field, to mean the act of seeking encounters with or surveying nightjars. And, still, the ambivalence will follow us: we jar the night as we seek its birds, the night jars us, and the nightjars, too, does both.
- “jar, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.
- “churr, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2022. Web. 10 August 2022.
Featured Image, an engraving from George Pope Morris’s The Whip-poor-will (1846)