Why you should worry about the Halloween Whip-poor-will.

In 1926, Whip-poor-wills refused to leave the central Massachusetts town of Dunwich until after Halloween. The birds gathered in flocks — another inauspicious behavior — outside the Whateley farmhouse. There, the birds chanted their call in unison:

whip poor will, whip poor will, whip poor will.

Lavinia Whateley was never seen again.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is arguably the most famous horror story to invoke Whip-poor-wills. Lovecraft has the birds engage in all sorts of un-Whip-poor-will-like behaviors — the flocks, the chants in unison, the late autumn departures. The birds are keyed to the deaths of humans, especially the “unnatural” humans like the Whateleys.

Lovecraft’s story wasn’t the first to invoke Whip-poor-wills to elevate a horror story. Washington Irving had a Whip-poor-will torment Ichibod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” No doubt, the species was once common and well known around Tarrytown, where the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier pursued Crane. Crane, who seems generally afraid of the dark, heard the Whip-poor-will’s call as a moan, which blended with other noises: “the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm, the dreary hooting of the screech owl, or the sudden rustling in the thicket of birds frightened from their roost.”

Neither was Lovecraft the first to invoke the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will. A decade or so before Lovecraft’s Whip-poor-wills postponed their fall migration to collect Lavinia Whateley’s soul, the journalist Clifford Raymond kept Whip-poor-wills at the Harteley House through October Hunter’s Moon. The birds waited around for this forgotten novel’s climatic scene, foretelling a death at the haunted house.

Out of Place, Out of Time

Nightbirds have long had a hold on the human imagination. They appear as shadows to us, as poor as our night vision is. They hoot and screech and churr and jar from hidden perches. We’ve associated them with impending doom — illness, suffering, death.

Shakespeare knew this, portending Caesar’s death by a daytime owl.

And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday, upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking.

“Screeching owls are almost universally feared,” the anthropologist Edward Armstrong writes in The Folklore of Birds (1970, p. 115). But “this bird was especially ominous because of its unnatural behaviour.”

Thus, the literary allure of the unnaturally late Whip-poor-will, who persists into the darkness and cold of October — the Hunter’s Moon, the Halloween. And so, too, the allure of the unusual flocks that Lovecraft imagines, birds who chant with rather than against each other. Or the daytime Whip-poor-wills of Chapelwaite, an Epix series based on Stephen King’s short story Jerusalem’s Lot.

When birds no longer heed the laws of nature, something monstrous approaches.

So what should you do if you hear a Whip-poor-will on Halloween?


Review of The Rarest Bird in the World

In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.

I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.

This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.

Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.

Oilbird, a relative of the Nightjars.
Oilbird. Photo by Doug Greenberg on flickr.

The Wrong Reader

And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.

To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.

Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.

For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.

A Raven @ Tower of London. Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

Do Rare Birds Need Us?

The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.

This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.

For more, listen to this 4 minute NPR program.

Featured Photo of the plains of Nechisar by flickr user Rafael Medina

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 Unsplash.com
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

The Wrong Duck: Folk Names in Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger

A character in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Passengers calls the Common Eider by the folkname Bridal Duck. But who is the real Bridal Duck?

Speaking of ducks, Geoff Stacks — friend, fellow birder, and fellow faculty at the University of Denver — sent me a puzzling passage from The Passenger, one of Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels. In the passage, one of the novel’s characters refers to the Common Eider correctly by its scientific name (Somateria mollissima) and incorrectly by a long-forgotten common name: the Bridal Duck.

The passage is puzzling because neither Geoff nor I had heard the name “Bridal Duck.” It’s also puzzling because it does not seem like that common name refers to the Eider. Rather, Geoff and I both found that the “Bridal Duck” was once a name that the Wood Duck was known by.

The scientific name of the Wood Duck — Aix sponsa — bears traces of this meaning. Sponsa apparently refers to a bride or betrothed woman. Other sources claim the name refers to the beauty of the male duck’s breeding plumage, taking “sponsa” to refer to the bridal dress of the bird’s plumage. Both meanings are referenced in Chester A. Reed’s early 20th century reference text, Birds of Eastern North America.

Wood Duck in Charles A. Reed's Field Guide
Reed – Birds of Eastern North America

A Duck By Any Other Name…

We have also known the Wood Duck by other names: Summer Duck, Woody, Squealer, Widgeon, or Acorn Duck.

We know Wood Ducks as Wood Ducks (and apparently “Woody”) because they nest in the cavities of trees. (I hope to not soon forget encountering Wood Duck parents perched in trees near the Mississippi River — or leading groups of downy young through those woods.)

We’ve called Wood Ducks “Squealers” for their dramatic screeches when flushed. Wood Ducks have often struck me as especially nervous around approaching humans, and I wonder if they still carry with them the hard won lessons of survival among humans with guns.

“Acorn Duck” refers to the fact that Wood Ducks consume the fruit of oak and other trees, invasive Russian Olives especially. I have seen Mallards feed beneath trees, too, gobbling down acorns from a landscaping tree at a local park.

Eider, Woody, and Mistaken Identity

All of this begs a question — why did McCarthy’s character get the “Bridal Duck” wrong? Is it McCarthy’s error, or does the error reveal something about the character?

Anyone can look up a folk name for birds. But the truth is that many might differ locally or regionally. And sometimes the same name was applied to multiple birds. This could be because two species were sometimes mistaken for each other. Or because different birds seemed to demand similar names.

So it’s hard to say why McCarthy’s character gets this wrong. But it’s also hard to say if a folk name can actually be used incorrectly. After all, they are folk names exactly because they aren’t systematized or formally accepted by birding organizations. So perhaps a Bridal Duck is whoever anyone calls a Bridal Duck.

Common Eider
Common Eider. Photo by Dave Willhite on Unsplash

Featured Photo by Tyler Jamieson Moulton on Unsplash

Book Review: Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate

Peter Tate’s book Flights of Fancy documents the odd and unusual in European folklore of birds.

Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition by Peter Tate describes thirty European species of birds and the folklores surrounding them.

The book’s chapter on nightjars led me to it. This chapter, like most in the book offers a brief history of the species in European legend. It offers a fairly rudimentary description of these legends, and most of the chapter’s content could be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on the European Nightjar. (In fairness to Tate, he wrote a brief, but impactful natural history of Nightjars. Most of the Wiki entry on the species could be gleaned from Tate’s earlier account.)

This is typical of the book, as many Goodreads’ reviewers of it have noted. Some of the chapters offer rather basic descriptions of folklore surrounding European birds. And Flights of Fancy isn’t ripe with references that lead readers back to historical sources.

And yet I found the book, as a whole, endearing and informative, if not a bit beguiling for the strangeness of European beliefs around birds. Barnacle geese, for instance, were believed to have been born not from eggs but something like a mix of sea foam and barnacles.

Barnacle Geese by Ronald Woan @ flickr

An old remedy for headaches, meanwhile, required killing a swallow on a full moon, drying the swallow, then grinding it into a medicine — a rather elaborate ritual when nibbling on willow bark would do.

Tate’s chapter on Wrynecks, a bird unfamiliar to me, taught me that the genus’s scientific name (Jynx) is the origin of the familiar word, jinx. This holds up. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster attribute the origin of the word jinx to folklore surrounding the genus.

Eurasian Wryneck
Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) captured at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan with Canon EOS 7D Mark II

I also learned of the rich Christian folklore surrounding the bird, of which I was entirely unaware. Two species — the European Robin (not a thrush like the robins of the Americas, but a flycatcher) and swallows — were held in particularly high esteem for having provided aid to Jesus during the Crucifixion. The red of Robin Redbreast was believed to be a drop of Jesus’s blood that the bird carries on its chest. (A sort of follow-up legend, which Tate doesn’t describe, has Merlins, a falcon, capturing robins and keeping them captive during cold winter nights. Their red breasts, apparently, would warm the falcons.)

Birds were also believed to have access to magical stones and herbs. People could access them by tricking the birds into retrieving one. This often involved an act of cruelty — injuring or blinding a young bird — so the parent would retrieve the stone or herb in question. Then, when the adult bird returns to the nest, it’s fooled again — a red blanket is put under the bird’s tree, simulating a fire. The bird, in a rush to put out the fire, then would drop the stone or herb to the deceitful human.

Swallows, for instance, could retrieve stones that cure blindness. Tate writes,

If you wanted to obtain the pebble for yourself, you first had to blind the nestlings of a pair of swallows, so that the females would fly off to get the magic stone and touch their nestlings’ eyes with it in order to restore their sight. Then you had to place a red cloth beneath the nest, so that the swallow would drop the stone on to it, believing that she was dropping it into a fire.

Flights of Fancy, 2007, p. 140

Flights of Fancy is, definitely, Eurocentric, and many reviewers of the book note this. Most single volume field guides are provincial in nature, by necessity — birds are too global and diverse a kingdom to be otherwise.

The book’s failing is less in its focus, though, but in its subtitle, which promises more than it offers. This is European birds in European myths, legends, and superstitions. Tate tends only to invoke beliefs from Asia and the western hemisphere when they’re largely resonate with the European myths. This allows Tate to document the surprising coincidence of beliefs around global genera of birds, such as Cranes (Grus).

Let's stay in touch

Sign up to receive updates and sneak peeks from my upcoming book on Whip-poor-wills.

By subscribing you agree with our Privacy Policy