That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.

I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.

In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.

Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.

Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.

But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.

Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.

But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.

So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.

We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.

Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.

Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings

Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift shows just how wild the world’s smallest birds are.

Like The Hawk’s Way, Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings is a repackaged chapter from Montgomery’s book Birdology. In many respects, it’s also about the same themes — wildness and the utter, unpassable gap between humans and a family (or two) of birds.

This theme is more fully realized in The Hummingbird’s Gift. This is unexpected. Hummingbirds would seem a far more docile, less wild thing than a hawk. Consider size. North America’s most familiar hummingbird, the Ruby-throated, weigh just .4% what a large female of North America’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed, weighs. And while the latter are built to kill, hummingbirds are built to lap up nectar and miniscule insects.

It’s the hummingbird’s diminutive size and their delicacy that makes them far less amenable to the handling of humans than hawks. Montgomery explains to us how much of hummingbirds exist as air. Yet its this delicacy that makes hummingbirds such remarkable creatures. They are the only birds that genuinely hover. Hummingbirds are even capable of feeding while upside down in flight. And though Peregrine Falcons get all the attention for their gravity-enhanced speeds, hummingbirds are arguably faster.

… a male Allen’s humingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second–and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world. Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second–and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per seconds.

Montgomery, The Hummingbird’s Gift, p. 16
SUPERNATURE – WILD FLYERS | Anna’s Hummingbird | PBS

Most of the Montgomery’s essay is a careful description of the work of Brenda Sherburn, one of the few people in the country who have the skills, patience, and commitment to rehabilitate hummingbirds and their nestling. We follow Brenda and Sy as they try to save the lives of two orphaned Allen’s Hummingbirds nestlings.

It’s a gripping story that can, at any moment, end badly. Hunger, mites, and aggressive Anna’s Hummingbirds threaten the nestlings. Montgomery takes us through all of it, offering bits and pieces of natural and cultural history along the way.

I hope the story leaves its readers planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers and keeping their cats inside. And maybe, just maybe, appreciating the tiny, fairy-like hummers that sip sugar water at feeders. After all, they are no less wild than the hawks and owls that carry off other living things at the harsh edges of prairies and forest.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris
Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris

Featured Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

5 Remarkable Spanish Bird Names Every Birder Should Know

Our names for birds reveal how we think about them. We can see ever more when we look across languages.

The names we call animals reveal how we think about other species. With birds, they can tell us what we see or hear when we encounter them. These Spanish names might just change how English language birders think about 5 familiar birds.

Eastern Meadowlark, or “Pradero Tortillaconchile”

Eastern Meadowlark, or "Pradero Tortillaconchile"
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Meadowlark is a suitable name, at least for poetry of it. But what’s a lark to begin with? And what does our grassland bird have to do with the name’s original holder, Europe’s Skylark?

In truth, the name “Meadowlark” for the Eastern, Western, and the recently “discovered” Chihuahuan Meadowlarks, which was split from the Eastern, doesn’t tell us much. It hints at the birds’ preference for grasslands. But many sparrows–the Lark Bunting, the Lark Sparrow, the Cassin’s Sparrow–all could be fairly called a meadowlark.

And this is why I especially like the name used in Mexico for Eastern Meadowlarks. At first, the name’s not unlike the English language one. “Pradero” translates to “Prairie,” pointing toward the Meadowlarks’ preferred habitats. But the name swerves at Tortillaconchile, an onomatopoeic rendition of their song: “tortilla chile.” As with all onomatopoeic names, it’s both a bit of a stretch and, once heard, a phrase that cannot be unheard.

Spotted Towhees, or “Rascador Moteado”

Spotted Towhees, or "Rascador Moteado"
Photo by John Duncan on Unsplash

What’s a “towhee”? A large sparrow. Why’s a towhee called a towhee and not a sparrow? Because towhees make the sound “towhee.” But their call also sounds like “chewink,” another name once applied to the birds. Oh, and this only applies to the bird now called the Eastern Towhee, which gave the rest of the Pipilo genus its common name. (East coast bias…)

Throughout much of the West, the Spotted Towhee is the most common of the towhees. Here in Colorado’s suburbs, the presence of Spotted Towhees is a good indicator of a fairly healthy backyard ecosystem. They like cover, tangled shrubs, and fallen branches. Spotted is an okay descriptive, but Eastern Towhees have a few spots. Western Towhee might have worked, but there are several western towhees. Mew Towhee or Cat Towhee (like Catbird) could honor the species’ feline-like call.

In Mexico, Spotted Towhees are known as Rascador Moteado. Rascador translates to Scratcher, a description of the towhee’s method of gathering food by double-scratching the ground. Moteado means mottled, so not that different from spotted. Still, when combined with “Scratcher,” the name offers a bit more insight into the behavior and appearance of this remarkable towhee.

House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano

House Finch, or Pinzón Mexicano, common birds across North America, were once limited to Mexico and the US west.
Photo by Jeremy Stanley on Unsplash

Today, House Finches are among the most common and widespread finch in North America. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the 1940s, House Finches were exclusively western U.S. and Mexican birds. Early in the decade, House Finches were released on Long Island, setting in motion the species’ spread throughout the continent.

The scientific name of House Finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, recalls the bird’s center of gravity in Mexico and lands now part of the US that once belonged to Mexico. (The same is true for the Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus.) The name for the House Finch in Mexico, Pinzón Mexicano (the Mexican Finch) reminds us of what borders mean or don’t mean to birds and how our naming practices reflect this.

Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano

Loggerhead Shrike, or Verdugo Americano
Loggerhead Shrike by flickr user cuatrok77

Birders use the word “loggerhead” unreflexively, without much wonderment about what it means. (A disproportionately large head.) A strange word, indeed, and one that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the field.

Birders also call Loggerhead Shrikes, and Northern Shrikes as well, Butcherbirds, for how brutal these songbirds’ methods of hunting are. This is an old folk name for shrikes that’s now more of a curiosity than a common name for them. Both birds cache food, impaling live prey on thorns and barbed wire. In part, this is to ensure a consistent supply of food, particularly during winter and the breeding season. But the behavior may also be a display behavior, with male shrikes marking territories and advertising their skills in butchering.

In Mexico, the Loggerhead Shrike is known Verdugo American, or American Executioner or American Hangman. Not only is the name more evocative than Loggerhead. It also better suits these birds, whose paths through the world are marked by deaths.

Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín 

Whip-poor-will, or Tapacaminos Cuerporruín 

It wouldn’t be a bird list without a Whip-poor-will. In most languages, the species’ name is a translation of the bird’s song. Cuerporruínm, which is used in both Spain and Mexico, combines two words: “cuerpo” and “ruín.” (I think the addition of an “r” to join the two words is meant to replicate the bird’s trill, which is particularly pronounced in the Mexican Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus arizonae).)

As a translation of the species’ song, “Cuerporruín” is as effective of an imitation as “Whip-poor-will.” The name is also more evocative, translating to Despicable (or Contemptible, or Mean, or Vicious) Body.

But it’s not just Cuerporruín that enriches the Whip-poor-will. Tapacaminos is an alternative to the European and English language names for the Whip-poor-will’s family: Goatsuckers (e.g., Chotacabras, in Spain) and Nightjars. Both names are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective). But neither is suitable. Goatsuckers is based on folklores around the bird, which had them suckling goats. Nightjar, which conjures the song of Europe’s nightjar, isn’t as suitable to the more melodious North American jars.

In Mexico, the name is used for three other Nightjars that are also present in the US: the Common Poorwill, the Mexican Whip-poor-will, and the Chuck Will’s Widow. The name combines two words: “tapa” and “caminos.” It translates to Trail Topper or Road Topper. A fitting name for the Nightjars like Whip-poor-wills and Poorwills, who will often hunt from the ground at the trail and roadsides that cut through their habitats.

10 Strange and Surprising Cultural References to Whip-poor-wills

Hogwart’s had Hedwig. The Seven Kingdoms had ravens. Whip-poor-wills are everywhere, but the cultural niches they occupy are far weirder.

Birds are real. And everywhere. Three-quarters of the U.S.’s independent coffee shops display photographs of birds, usually cardinals or Black-capped Chickadees. Every epic film or television show eventually pans to ominous flocks of crows or ravens. (Fake facts, both.) If you go birding in the right cultural niches, you’ll also find Whip-poor-wills.

10. Zelda – Breath of the Wild (2017)

As a kid of the 80s and 90s, it warms my heart that the 2017 version of The Legend of Zelda, entitled Breath of the Wild, features the call of the Whip-poor-will. This isn’t a version of the call, but the call itself. And always from some hidden perch, out of view. Perfect.

9. The Barton Bedtime Stories – Whisk Whip-poor-will (1920s)

Whisk the Whip-poor-will, from the August 20, 1921, story "Whisk, the Bird Detective"

Before Disney and its interminable cast of animal characters came along, The Barton Bedtime Stories entertained children from Boston to Sacramento. A weekly story that ran in the nation’s newspapers, the Stories features a cast of real birds doing unreal things.

Whisk Whip-poor-will was among them. Apparently, there was a time when the Whip-poor-will was well enough known that a syndicated children’s story could prominently feature the species to dramatic effect.

The summer of 1921 was especially challenging for Whisk, who floated down a river, took a tumble with ducks, and had run-ins with toads and minks. I’m left wondering what might have been had Mickey Mouse, introduced later in the 1920s, had a Whip-poor-will for a companion.

In the late 1930s, a new children’s series by Thornton Burgess‘ similarly populated children’s imagination with birds, including Boomer the Nighthawk and Whip-poor-will.

8. Bert Goetz – The Whip-poor-will Swoop (1889)

Buffalo Morning Express - Goetz and the Whip-poor-will Swoop
Buffalo Morning Express – April 11, 1889

A professional baseball player in the late-1800s, Bert Goetz is something of an enigma. An 1889 article in the Buffalo Morning Express lists his name as “Charles Goetz.” Modern sources list it as “George Burt Goetz.” His nickname was either “The Greencastle Giant” or “The Whip-poor-will Swoop.” The latter was also a name he gave for a “zig-zag” pitch he claimed to use to baffle batters.

This much is definitive, though. Goetz pitched in a single game, going 9 innings for the Baltimore Orioles in 1889. Goetz allowed 4 earned runs on 12 hits to the Louisville Colonels. He and the Whip-poor-will Swoop struck out two of the 39 batters he faced. Baltimore won in extra innings.

7. George Pope Morris – “The Whip-poor-will” (1838)

George Pope Morris‘ poem “The Whip-poor-will” transforms the bird into a specter who haunts the poem’s narrators with a question, “Why Whip Poor Will?” The poem is a bleak morality tale about the universality of sin and the absolute necessity of confession.

But use thee kindly--for my nerves,
Like thine, have penance done:
"Use every man as he deserves,
Who shall 'scape whipping?"--None!

Farewell, poor Will!--Not valueless
This lesson by thee given:
"Keep thine own counsel, and confess
Thyself alone to Heaven!"

Morris’ “The Whip-poor-will” was published widely in the Whip-poor-will’s nesting range. It appeared in newspapers across the northeast. It was also reprinted fairly extensively in collected volumes of American poetry, as well as in instructional books for schools. Perhaps a generation or more who encountered the bird would themselves be haunted by that question: Why whip poor will?

6. Boston Globe – Whippoorwill (1920s)

In the 1920s, a letter writer to the Boston Daily Globe‘s lifestyle section went by the penname Whippoorwill. Whippoorwill shared recipes (orange filling, molasses sauce, liver loaf). Writing from the mountains of New Hampshire, Whippoorwill also dispensed wisdom, including advice on curing kittens of constipation.

5. James Thurber – “The Whip-poor-will” (1941)

Originally appearing in a 1941 issue of the New Yorker, James Thurber’s short story “The Whip-poor-will” was republished in Thurber’s book My World – and Welcome to It. The story begins at 20:51.

Kept awake by an excessively loud Whip-poor-will, Mr. Kinstrey, the protagonist of James Thursber’s 1941 story, “The Whip-poor-will” descends into madness, then violence. The madness takes the form of a repetitive chanting–“Sit-down-there, Sit-down-there” opens the story–meant to mimic the Whip-poor-will’s call. For me, it strikes just a bit too close to the stuttering states in which insomnia leaves some of us.

The violence takes the form of a murder-suicide. In this, Thurber’s story is meant to conjure superstitions that link Whip-poor-wills with death. But the story is less about the omens surrounding the bird and more about toxic white masculinity. As Kinstrey descends into madness, he belittles his wife Madge and his Black domestic workers. None accepts his complaints of sleeplessness to the chanting Whip-poor-will. The reader is left with the feeling that Kinstrey believes two things. The first is that all of them are too stupid to understand his plight. The second is that none deserves to doubt him.

So Kinstrey kills them all, and then he kills himself. This sets up a shaggy dog ending, involving a brief quip between the two officers investigating the killings.

Out in back, probably in the little strip of wood there, Lennon figured, a Whip-poor-will began to call. Lennon listened a minute. “You ever hear the old people say a Whip-poor-will singing near the house means death,” he asked.

Baird grunted and got in under the wheel. “Takes more than a Whip-poor-will to cause a mess like that.”

4. Magic The Gathering – “Whippoorwill” (1994)

Magic the Gathering - Whippoorwill
Magic the Gathering – Whippoorwill

I grew up MTG adjacent, with friends and family playing the card game. So this has a bit of a full circle feel to it. The game has a card featuring, of all birds, this bird.

Designed by Douglas Schuler, Magic the Gathering’s Whippoorwill card, from the 1994 “The Dark” set, features a lovely rendition of a Nightjar. The card evokes some of the superstitions and omens long associated with the Whip-poor-will as a collector of souls.

If the Whippoorwill remains silent, the soul has not reached its reward.

3. Edward Hopper – Cape Cod Evening (1939)

Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening depicts the call of a Whip-poor-will from beyond the frame.

Edward Hopper’s most well-known painting has nothing to do with Nightjars and yet it’s named after one of them. “Nighthawks” features a crew of humans at a diner. There’s not a bird in sight.

Cape Cod Evening, on the other hand, manages to depict the essence of Whip-poor-wills: invisibility. According to the National Gallery of Art, the Whip-poor-will’s call is an “implied presence” in the work. This is especially so in Hopper’s depiction of the dog. Attentive not to the humans in the scene but to something beyond the frame, the dog’s “alert stance seems a portent of some
imminent danger; and the advancing darkness of evening imparts a melancholy
mood.” The Whip-poor-will, too, portends these.

According to the painter (and Hopper’s wife) Josephine Hopper, there’s no doubt about the Whip-poor-will: “The Whipporwill is there out of sight.” This may make Hopper the only artist to paint Nighthawks without painting Nighthawks and Whip-poor-wills without painting Whip-poor-wills.

2. H. P. Lovecraft – The Dunwich Horror (1929)

Whip-poor-will, Savage Trail 2/09/20

In The Dunwich Horror, H. P. Lovecraft invokes an old New England superstition about Whip-poor-wills: they collect departed souls. But Lovecraft’s birds are as twisted as this story. They gather in great numbers, calling incessantly around the deaths of the story’s characters, Old Whateley and his grandson Wilbur Whateley.

What are the Whateleys? Something unnatural. Likewise the Whip-poor-wills. They change their behavior, even migration, as human death approaches, to ensure they’re available to call maniacally and surely collect souls.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down. Then they vanished, hurrying southward where they were fully a month overdue. What this meant, no one could quite be certain till later. None of the country folk seemed to have died—but poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.

1. The Smurfs – “The Last Whippoorwill” (1986)

The Smurf‘s 1986 episode “The Last Whippoorwill” features a bird that’s clearly a Whip-poor-will-Pigeon hybrid. This imagined species coos like a pigeon and nests in a tree in ways a Whip-poor-will won’t. And sure, the Smurf’s village appears to be in a feudal Europe where Whip-poor-wills weren’t. But the bird gives the famous three note call: “Whip-poor-will,” though without the accuracy of Zelda’s birds.

Despite its ornithological shortcomings, what makes this episode remarkable is its strong conservation message. Due to poaching and egg collection, Whip-poor-wills are nearly extinct. With the species gone, insects overrun Smurf village. (Whip-poor-wills are indeed insectivores.) After consulting with Mother Nature(!), the Smurfs go on a rescue mission to recover the last Whip-poor-will egg and restore ecological balance. Along the way, they teach an unscrupulous human boy a lesson in the compassionate treatment of non-human species.

Featured image by flickr user Tom Murray. Taken on July 3, 2017 Dunstable, Ma. Some rights reserved.

On Birds, ChatGPT is Stuck in the 18th-century.

Three hundred years ago, naturalists couldn’t tell the difference between two iconic species of birds. Today, ChatGPT is making the same mistakes.

I recently asked ChatGPT an easy question: “Why a Whip-poor-will is named a Whip-poor-will?” The popular chatbot muddled its way through an answer, making some of the same mistakes as 18th century naturalists. Not satisfied with its errors, ChatGPT introduced new ones!

Wilson “Discovers” the Whip-poor-will

In the first decades of the 1800s, the Scottish naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote his nine volume book, American Ornithology. Wilson’s text remains one of North America’s most important book of ornithology. Indeed, many consider Wilson the continent’s first ornithologist.

One of the many achievements of American Ornithology was to finally and definitively describe the Whip-poor-will, a common but reclusive bird of North America’s east coast. Before Wilson, early naturalists confused the Whip-poor-will with a related and more conspicuous bird, the Common Nighthawk. Confronting this confusion, Wilson writes that the Whip-poor-will has “never been described by any writer whose work I am acquainted.”

A photograph of a Whip-poor-will, which ChatGPT confused with the Common Nighthawk.
Whip-poor-will by flickr user Tom Murray. Some rights reserved.

It wasn’t that the Whip-poor-will wasn’t known to early European naturalists who visited the US. The bird’s name dates to the early 1700s, after all. What Wilson shows, over the course of 2.5 pages on the species, is something else. Early naturalists regularly confused the Whip-poor-will with other North American Nightjars, especially the Nighthawk. Illustrations of Whip-poor-wills often combined both birds’ features. This plate that appeared in Mark Catesby’s studies of North American birds is illustrative. The drawing combines the long, lanky shape of a Nighthawk with the bristles of a Whip-poor-will.

Catesby’s Nighthawk-Whip-Poor-Will Hybrid

Audubon, a professional rival of Wilson, downplayed Wilson’s effort. In his influential book, The Birds of America, Audubon writes.

Much has been said respecting the difference existing between the Whip-poor-will and the Night Hawk, for the purpose of shewing them to be distinct species. On this subject I shall only say, that I have known both birds from my early youth, and I have seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the United States, who did not know the difference between them. 

A Common Nighthawk, which ChatGPT confused for a Whip-poor-will.
Common Nighthawk. Photo by flickr user Brandon Trentler. Some Rights Reserved.

ChatGPT’s Effort

I suppose that Audubon and his unnamed farmers and boys would be bemused at ChatGPT, which appears stuck in the late-1700s on Whip-poor-wills. When I asked it to explain how Whip-poor-wills got their name, the chatbot opened with a muddled collection of errors. It also offered a word, hwipporu, that doesn’t seem to exist.

The bird species known as the Common Nighthawk, which is also known as the Whip-poor-will, is named for its call, which sounds like “whip-poor-will.” The species’ scientific name, Chordeiles minor, also refers to this call. The name is thought to be a derivation of the Old English word “hwipporu,” meaning “to make a noise.” The bird species is known for its distinctive nocturnal song which is usually heard at dusk and dawn. They are named after the call of the male bird which is a repetitive phrase, “whip-poor-will” which is sung as a territorial call or as a courtship call by males.

Here’s a list of errors that I’ve noticed.

  • The Common Nighthawk hasn’t been known as the Whip-poor-will since the late eighteenth century.
  • The scientific name of the Common Nighthawk is indeed Chordeiles minor. However, this doesn’t refer to the call of “whip-poor-will.” I cover the meaning of this name in my post about the Nighthawk.
  • I’ve not yet read that the name Whip-poor-will is thought to be a derivation of “hwipporu.” I’m curious to know more, but neither Google, Google Scholar, nor Google Books returns a single reference to this “Old English” word.
  • We indeed known Whip-poor-wills are indeed known song, which they give at dusk and dawn. This makes the call crepuscular, not nocturnal. (Of all the mistakes, this one is minor.)

That this account reflects understandings of birds from colonial America is stupefying. But it gives me some satisfaction and hope that artificial intelligence has not yet mastered what is obscure among us. Much of what is important to know falls into this category. After all, what remains obscure to us, and to the technologies we create, is simply that which we do not know well.

Find the obscure, the weird, the forgotten, and you will find something that the algorithms don’t yet care for. Such is the life of the Whip-poor-will, calling still from the rotten woods of our forest floors.

For more on ChatGPT’s struggles will birds, see my recent post on the chatbot’s effort to create a list of birds named after their song.

Sy Montgomery’s The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty

Falconers, not hawks, take center stage in Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty.

I feel a two-fold ambivalence about Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty. The ambivalence first comes from the fact that the book is not a book. It is a chapter of Montgomery’s Birdology repackaged with photos to stand alone; the production was clearly rushed and at least two of those photos have incorrect captions. The second ambivalence comes from the purposelessness of the story Montgomery tells. Just when I thought I had found the hawk’s way, Montgomery lost it.

Selling The Hawk’s Way

In tiny type on the front cover, below the title, a reproduction of Audubon’s illustration of a Harris’s Hawk (then the Louisiana Hawk), below even the reminder that Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author is this disclaimer: “Previously published as a chapter in Birdology.”

Birdology was published by Simon & Schuster. The Hawk’s Way (and The Hummingbird’s Gift) were published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The repackaging alone doesn’t bother me. The chapter is now a stand alone essay with a lovely cover and full color photographs. The problem is it seems the production of the book was done quickly or without proper checks on the images photographs that are meant to make the book special. At least two species of raptors are mislabeled in the book–a disappointment that chips away at Montgomery’s credibility in telling her story of the hawk’s way (though I suspect we don’t owe the production to her).

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The third color photograph of a bird shows a Ferruginous Hawk in Colorado. The bird stands on the ground, as Ferruginous Hawks often do in the open, dry grasslands and pastures they hunt in Colorado.

The photograph’s caption tells the reader: “Red-shouldered hawks love tall woods and water. This one, photographed in Colorado, has an unusually light breast.”

So here is a hawk, standing among dry grasses, loving tall woods and water. Here’s a nearly-white breasted raptor, while the Red-shouldered Hawks red shoulders bleed rust through their breast.

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Later in the book, an apparent Peregrine Falcon is labeled as the much smaller and more colorful American Kestrel.

It’s easy to make mistakes in the writing or production of a book. Copyeditors and I have caught mistakes in the spelling of well-known names in books I’ve written. I shudder to think what I didn’t catch.

But the mistakes in The Hawk’s Way are glaring. They are attached to one of the elements of The Hawk’s Way that make it a special book to own and not just a book chapter.

The mistake has the effect of eroding Montgomery’s credibility as a narrator of the hawk’s way of life. The book is short on species accounts to begin with. (In truth, a more accurate title is The Falconer’s Way.) So to not know the main characters well enough to use their proper names is something of a disappointment.

The Wayward Way

My other ambivalence comes from the underlying meaning of the stories Montgomery tells. For much of the chapter, I thought I was with her. This seems a story about the wildness of diurnal raptors and the profound incompatibility between their wildness and our own way of being in the world.

Books on birds often look for ways to diminish the distance between us and them. This brings us closer to birds, giving their lives meanings on our terms and investing us in them and their conservation.

This is particularly true of books on social songbirds, like crows, ravens, and starlings. Corvids, especially, possess remarkable, human-life abilities. They can solve problems. They express emotions. They lie. They play. They use vocalizations in ways that seem to mirror human language.

Not so, hawks. (Or perhaps most hawks, though they’re treated with a broad brush in The Hawk’s Way.)

I appreciate Montgomery’s effort to express the singularity of hawk-ness. But this seemed to fade into the background of the book the more Montgomery involved herself in the world of falconry.

This is particularly so in the book’s conclusion. The closing scene has Montgomery going out in the field with a master falconer to hunt with a young bird. It seemed a mess. Wild hawks lurk at the edges of the scene, and these birds’ wildness seems a problem to be solved. Conflicts between a hunting dog and the falconry birds abound. And all of this seems to result from human mistakes, not precision.

Perhaps this is what falconry is like, given the profound difference between a hawk and a human. But Montgomery doesn’t tell us if this is so. More importantly, she doesn’t help us understand this, so that we can appreciate the mistakes as something other than mistakes.

Instead, the clumsiness of the scene left me feeling for everyone subject to the interests and actions of humans — the wild birds seen as threats, the dogs who might the falconry birds might attack, those birds who might get downed by a Goshawk or Red-tailed, and the quails feeding all of the action.

And then I was left wondering the purpose of it all. If it’s to get close to wildness, then why the neglect of the wild birds when they enter the scene? (And the neglect of them when photographed and used to illustrate a book.)

If, as the final sentence seems to suggest, it’s to appreciate the meaning of animal lives and deaths, why not live, for a moment, with the quail’s way?

“A Little Bit of Pain”: ChatGPT’s Sad Song About Whip-poor-wills.

ChatGPT wrote a sad song about Whip-poor-wills. Its went as well as you’d expect.

Nick Cave has had enough. In his recent newsletter, Cave bemoaned that, “Since its launch in November last year, many people, most buzzing with a kind of algorithmic awe, have sent me songs ‘in the style of Nick Cave’ created by ChatGPT.”

Such songs fail, Cave rightly notes, because

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer. ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

I’ve been following reporting on the effects of ChatGPT on teaching. The AI’s algorithm can produce coherent-enough renditions of human writing on academic topics. I’ve posed synthetic questions to it, asking it to apply classical sociological ideas to contemporary topics. The results are fluent and accurate summaries of sociological theories, with adequate applications to new topics.

AI, in other words, currently writes essays that would receive a passing grade.

But its writing is bland and formulaic. Its ideas artlessly reflect what others have thought and said.

Likewise its songs.

Here’s AI’s version of a song, written in the style of Hank Williams, mentioning a Whip-poor-will. It’s a bland, general song about suffering. The rhymes are simple, mono-syllabic, and predictable. It feels like a mashup of every previous song about sadness and Whip-poor-wills. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, many pop songs probably could have been written by a chatbot.

In other words, The lyric is true, without being True.

Listen to the sound of the whip-poor-will
Echoing through the hills, it's a lonesome thrill
As the sun sets on another day
I can't help but feel a little bit of pain

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will
Your cry is like a song that's hard to still
It reminds me of the love that's gone
And the memories that linger on

I can hear you calling in the night
A mournful song, so pure and so right
It's a reminder of a love that's true
And the memories that still carry through

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will
Your cry is like a song that's hard to still
It reminds me of the love that's gone
And the memories that linger on

So I'll sit here and listen to you sing
As the stars come out and the moon takes wing
And I'll think of her and the love we knew
And the memories that still carry through.

(How long until some lonely singer-songwriter writes, “Hear that lonesome ChatGPT / It sounds to blue to AI.”)

As far as I know, Nick Cave never sang a song mentioning Whip-poor-wills. He did join Johnny Cash on a rendition of William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but Cash took the famous opening verse and Cave the second.

Featured Photo by Gertrūda Valasevičiūtė on Unsplash

“The Night Side of the Woods”: Thoreau’s Whip-poor-will

For Henry David Thoreau, a Whip-poor-will’s call conjured a world we were already losing.

Prior to the 1950s, Americans interpreted the spring arrival of Whip-poor-wills as a sign and not always a welcome one. The birds foretold life and love, yes, but also illness and death. Those more dependent on the earth found something else: a message about impending frosts, storms, and ripened fruits.

After World War II, the Whip-poor-wills had all but disappeared from American consciousness. Sure, we saw a dramatic increase in roads, farms, clubs, and camps named after the bird. But the real thing? It called from ever decreasing patches of woods, often out of earshot of an increasingly indoor and alienated human species.

That is one story of how Whip-poor-wills came to inhabit only the wild edges of America. Another begins earlier by a century or more.

Tuesday, June 10, 1851, was “a beautiful summer night, not too warm, moon not quite full, after two or three rainy days.” The writer of these words, Henry David Thoreau, used the evening to walk to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, by railroad.

As he walked, he found himself farther from towns and his worry that “there would be too much white light, like the pale remains of daylight” on his walk. But he walked deeper into the night and, he writes simply, “it was better.” He encountered Whip-poor-wills and fireflies in meadows, and Nighthawks booming late in the evening.

Deeper into the night, Thoreau encountered fireflies and Whip-poor-wills in a meadow.
Photo by Tony Phan on Unsplash

Thoreau recognized the latter is a rare occurrence, indeed, writing,

I hear the nighthawks uttering their squeaking notes high in the air now at nine o’clock p. m., and occasionally—what I do not remember to have heard so late—their booming note.

Nighthawks are active at twilight; crepuscular birds, these are. It is a truism of their species accounts that they are very rarely active at night and, when they are, it’s usually to hunt insects drawn to artificial light. Perhaps Thoreau misjudged the time? Or perhaps the Nighthawks had been forced down the previous “two or three days” of rain and were making up for lost time.

As for the Whip-poor-wills, Thoreau recognized a broader story in their song. Here was not just natural history, but human history and culture.

The whip-poor-will suggests how wide asunder [are] the woods and the town. Its note is very rarely heard by those who live on the street, and then it is thought to be of ill omen. Only the dwellers on the outskirts of the village hear it occasionally. It sometimes comes into their yards. But go into the woods in a warm night at this season, and it is the prevailing sound. I hear now five or six at once. It is no more of ill omen therefore here than the night and the moonlight are. It is a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods.

Off hand, Thoreau suggests a tantalizing hypothesis: that the folklore and superstition surrounding the birds matured as everyday encounters with the real birds decreased. Americans once had an intimacy and knowledge of Nightjars born from familiarity. Thoreau is suggesting that, absent this, an unease and anxiety with the night side of things crept in.

In the next passage of his journal, Thoreau further recognized that the aural life of America was rapidly changing: “New beings have usurped the air we breathe, rounding Nature, filling her crevices with sound.”

I’m struck by an irony, as I type this, that I have written this entry with headphones on, a decade-old album filling Nature’s crevices with sound. Outside, this winter, are finches and sparrows, the rustle of towhees in the chokecherry thicket that edges my yard, and somewhere the trill of waxwings.

So to Thoreau’s words, return: “To sleep where you may hear the whip-poor-will in your dreams!”

What does the year’s first Whip-poor-will mean?

The year’s first Whip-poor-will has been an omen of many things: life, love, and death. For one Alabama man, it meant a haircut.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American newspapers often carried reporting on the arrival of Whip-poor-wills to the U.S. The species’ return to country had long been a sign, to be interpreted by those who encountered it.

Arriving at the turn of spring, Whip-poor-wills portended the last frost, the ripening of vegetables and fruits, the blooming of certain flowers, and, through the Great Plains, the likelihood of just one final winter storm (the “Whippoorwill Storm”).

For some listeners, the Whip-poor-will meant even more. The first call could be counted. How many times did the bird sing its name? That tally could mean the number of years to marriage. Or death.

For one man, the return of Whip-poor-wills meant something more prosaic: a haircut. In mid-April, 1941, Rufus Huey (“Uncle Rip”) Griggs of Fort Payne, Alabama, heard a Whip-poor-will “holler,” according to an Associated Press report that I found in the Hartford Courant.

With that, spring arrived and Griggs’ had his bi-annual haircut. (The second occurring when it was time to make syrup from the maples in autumn.)

The AP’s article ran widely, appearing in newspapers in at least ten states, according to my search.

Within a decade, Whip-poor-wills had largely retreated from public consciousness. As Americans moved into cities and suburbs, “developing” rural areas along the way, everyday encounters with Whip-poor-wills and birds more generally diminished in frequency and importance. No more would we wait, anxiously, for a Nightjar to sing us our fate.

I await 2023’s first Nightjar. Here in Colorado, Poorwills arrive by early May. Nighthawks just a few weeks later. Now I just need corresponding rituals.

Featured Photo by Kadir Celep on Unsplash

A Briefness of Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings are having a moment. These far north birds are venturing into Colorado. But what’s brought them here for the first time in a decade?

Bohemian Waxwings are having a moment. This winter, these far north breeders have ventured as far south as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here in Colorado, Bohemian Waxwings have been relatively common in the Front Range this winter.

It’s been been a decade since Bohemians have been so numerous and conspicuous in Colorado. What’s brought them here? We’ve had deep snow and extreme cold in the Rocky Mountain west. While I don’t know if this has been the case farther north, where this species usually overwinters, one suspects that it is.

But perhaps it’s a fool’s errand explaining the Bohemian Waxwings southward movements. Cornell’s Birds of the World says this of the bird.

Notoriously irruptive, irregularly appearing in large numbers in regions south of normal wintering range. For example, only rarely reported from New Mexico, but in Apr 1959, huge numbers (about 10,000 individuals) arrived in Santa Fe and remained until early May (Ligon 1961). Late arrival at this southern locality suggests individuals moved into the area after depleting fruit supplies in more northern areas. 

At least what we can say what the birds are doing here: devouring the berry-like drupes of Common Buckthorn, an invasive, non-native plant.

Just south of Denver, along the High Line Canal, a single Bohemian Waxwing amid 50-100 Cedar Waxwings quickly became a flock of 30-50 Bohemians among 100-150 Cedar Waxwings.

Today, January 15, that flock tripled in number. For the first time, I had the good fortune of standing amid a large, active, and noisy flock of Bohemians. They filled a small Buckthorn on the Canal’s edge. Dozens occasionally jammed in to my camera’s field of view.

While the photos of these gatherings aren’t particularly impressive, I like how much movement and activity they convey. Waxwings and a robin or too point in every direction. Some are in flight. Others are swallowing Buckthorn. Others are about to collect it. The birds only seem to do one thing in unison: throw themselves into flight, as a single, impressive flock.

Waxwings Gathering in a Buckthorn

When not eating, the Bohemian Waxwings trilled from high perches in the Canal cottonwoods. By comparison to the Cedar Waxwing’s call, the Bohemian’s call is slow and low. Between the robins, Bohemian Waxwings, and a few magpies, the Canal filled with a complex mix of sounds.

Waxwings and the Suburban Landscape

This year, many of the best places to see Bohemian Waxwings near Denver have been south and slightly east of the city, along the High Line Canal Trail. eBird shows that birders have reported Bohemian Waxwings throughout a 4 mile, as a car drives, and 7.5 mile, as the Canal winds, stretch of the trail from southeast Denver through Cherry Hills Village.

eBird Species Map of Bohemian Waxwings sighted along the High Line Canal
eBird Map of Bohemian Waxwing Sightings

The Canal itself is a ditch dug by hand over a century ago. It used to carry water from S. Platte River, southwest of Denver, to the prairies north east of Aurora. Along it, a riparian corridor of cottonwoods, willows, chokecherry, Golden Currants and American plums developed.

These native plants provide important resources to the trail’s wildlife. Cottonwoods, willows, chokecherries, and plums are important host plants for moths and butterflies. These are themselves important food sources for birds during nesting season. Currants, chokecherries, and plums bloom early, providing insects and birds with nectar. The cottonwoods provide nesting habitat for native and introduced species, particularly Northern Flickers, Eastern Screech Owls, and European Starlings.

The chokecherries feed songbirds in autumn; they also serve as host plants for moths and some swallowtail butterflies. Meanwhile, the plums are both a critical host plant for moths and butterflies and an important late autumn food source for mammals, particularly coyotes.

The corridors has also proven a suitable home for weedy and invasive non-native trees and shrubs, particularly honeysuckles, Russian olives, Siberian Elms, and Buckthorn. These can spread voraciously. Tree of Heaven, European Spindle, Privets, the occasional lilac, and Golden Rain Trees, which are overused in landscape plantings, have also begun to move in.

So here in the southern suburbs of Denver and Aurora, our encounters with waxwings happen in a landscape altered by human activities. Meanwhile, waxwings and other birds continue to alter it, spreading seeds of Buckthorn across the canal and adjacent open spaces.

ISO Buckthorn

Birds ignore Common Buckthorn drupes until mid-to-late winter. It’s often the only fruit left standing at this time of year. So to find uncommon or rare birds, it often means being in search of the plant. In addition to the waxwings and robins, I’ve also seen White-throated Sparrows, Townsend’s Solitaires, Hermit Thrushes, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees feeding on or associating with Buckthorn.

White-throated Sparrow in Common Buckthorn
White-throated Sparrow in Common Buckthorn along High Line Canal Trail (2017)

All this leaves me with an ambivalence. Rarely do I seek out patches of invasive plants with any kind of joy or hope. But if I hope to find waxwings, I also implicitly hope to find these. And this stretch of the Canal is a wall of Buckthorn. Many of the adjacent yards also have patches of the plant, perhaps owing to the activities of robins and waxwings.

Not to be Ignored, Cedar Waxwings

While Bohemian Waxwing steal the show, Cedar Waxwings are also worth watching. They, too, acrobatically feed on Buckthorn, in Cirque du Soleil feats of balance and flexibility.

Cedar Waxwing on the High Line Canal, Cherry Hills Village, CO

Cedar Waxwing and Buckthorn

Meanwhile, I’ve watched waxwings mellow out the laxative properties of Buckthorn by voraciously drinking. They’ll do this at puddles on pavement, as well as high in cottonwoods, where they gobble up melting snow.

Cedar Waxwings Eating Snow in a Cottonwood
A Cedar Waxwing Munching on Snow

A Cedar Waxwing with Snow on Beak
Cedar Waxwings on the High Line Canal, Cherry Hills Village, CO

An apparent pair of Cedar Waxwing used the snow to maintain their bond, exchanging it as a sort of gift. (Another Colorado birder reported similar behavior between Cedar Waxwings on January 7, and I saw it again on 1/15.)

This “passing behavior” is common during nesting season, when birds affirm their bonds through exchanges of food and water. According to Birds of the World, this behavior is not especially well documented in the winter among Cedar Waxwings: “The extent to which mates associate in winter and migratory flocks is not known.”

However, Bohemian Waxwings display this behavior, according to this 1978 article in Blue Jay, the long-running journal of Nature Saskatchewan. And according to the Birds of the World account of Cedar Waxwings, some pairs do indeed remain bonded beyond the nesting season.

For now, the birds remain committed to the Canal. Eventually, they’ll exhaust it as a food source and look elsewhere. They’re remarkably nomadic birds, after all.

Until then…

waxwing ripen
the winter
Bohemian Waxwing

For more on the remarkable behavior of winter waxwings, see Mary Holland’s incredible post and photographs of a Bohemian Waxwing feeding on Bald-faced Hornet larvae.

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