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?
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
I have had occasion—three times now—to watch a robin die.
The first to causes unknown, three decades or so ago. I was a child, perhaps ten or twelve years old. I collected an ill or wounded bird from near my family’s home. My uncertainty about her condition says everything. The bird died, because she was dying and because all I had was a human’s stubborn belief in the life-giving force of a human’s stubborn belief.
I kept the robin in a shoebox, believing her recovery was only a matter of rest and food. I fed the bird grass, believing her association with the damp lawn was about the plants, rather than the worms and insects I’d later learn she so effectively hunted.
Over days, the bird lay motionless, shallow breath proof of life. To me, her death seemed slow, perhaps tragically so. But I think it’s more correct to say that she died only as quickly or slowly as what killed her would take her. I buried her, in the shoebox, on Memorial Day, thinking the act and timing significant.
I then neglected American Robins. Even when, two decades later, I became a birder, I thought robins too much a caricature of a bird to deserve my attention. More Disney cartoon than wild life, robins walk like every bird is supposed to walk, run like every bird is meant to run, and feed on a cliché—the early bird getting the worm that ought not to have dawdled.
It was like this for me until 2014, when I decided to attend to a flock of robins at Cheesman Park in central Denver, Colorado. In the presence of these birds—a sign of warmer seasons—I tried to will spring into existence, laying on the cold February ground to photograph one of them at eye-level.
But recalcitrant robin he was. Instead of performing his photogenic wildness, he looked for the wildness in me. My photographs show him staring back, seeming to meet the gaze of my camera.
So I left him and found the rest of the robin flock in the small, landscaping trees that edge the park. I stayed with one member of the group, who perched with her back to me. I did this for roughly fifteen seconds, collecting a dozen or so photos, before the flock convulsed as one.
In the act of photographing, I almost missed the moment, the meaningful signs that a flock of birds gives in the presence of their hunter—the tightening across their bodies, the change in the urgency of their calls. I whirled as the flock took flight, trying to follow the group. I found instead, on the pavement, about ten feet from me, a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk with her prey.
Sharp-shinned Hawks kill by constriction. They tighten their talons around their prey, choking air, then life from songbirds and small mammals. And so the robin, beneath this small hawk, gasped. And so the robin called out, perhaps involuntarily, as the accipiter undid the robin’s breath. Meanwhile, I held my own, resisting the urge to flail and shout and rob the hawk of her well-earned meal. (Imagine my intervention, and this wounded robin dying regardless of my efforts while the Sharp-shinned Hawk went unfed.)
A third time, about four years later, in my new neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Denver. On a walk, I encountered a Black-billed Magpie running interference on American Robin parents as another magpie hammered at the skull of a still living fledgling.
The bodies of hawks—bills and talons, especially—prepare them for the work of death. By contrast, magpies’ minds are more lethal than their bodies. (This is probably true of all corvids—crows, ravens, magpies, jays. I think it’s fair to say that it’s also true of a certain primate species.) Magpies’ bodies prepare them for exploration and their omnivorous, opportunistic lifestyle. Their minds, though, prepare them to plan raids on nests and vulnerable young. And so the fledgling’s death was pure terror to this human observer—protracted and inefficiently violent. And, it seemed to him, deep tragedy to the fledgling’s parents who leapt and called and failed still.
I watched from afar, aghast as I have ever been at the capacities of non-human animals. I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to bring some relief to the suffering fledging. I wanted to keep the parent robins from this loss and the panic they showed before it. Instead, I left the magpies, as I had left the hawk, with their well-earned meal. Given the timing—it was early June—I suspect they delivered the fledgling to their own hungry young.
When I’ve shared these observations with other birders, I admit all it took for me not to try to rescue the robins. Often, others respond without pausing for thought or reflection, offering clichés, which are no less true for being clichés.
Nature is cruel.
Death is cruel.
Death is part of nature itself.
A hawk or magpie, as the case may be, must eat.
Intellectually, I understand and appreciate these messages. They encage the tender human muscles and brake the impulse to act on death denial, the belief that the protection of life is always an absolute good. Ruminating on them now, I recall in judgement the boy I was, who thought a wild being’s death could and, so, should be forestalled by a cardboard box, a bed of grass, and human intentions alone.
But clichés can be true without being all the way true. I find these as one-sided as those that moved me to try to rescue a robin. For just as the younger me was certain a robin ought be saved, these clichés offer an alternative certainty: that the necessity of a non-human animal’s death strips death and the animals themselves of meaning.
These clichés are used not merely to convey moral imperatives, but also to shape our attitudes and perceptions. Their subtext is that the mature observer must remain blasé in the face of life-giving death. Unattached to the bird who delivers death to the robin. Unmoved by the robin who delivers life in return. Uncurious about what it means to be in the presence of both.
I accept that the hawk must kill. And yes, the magpie will, too. It follows, then, that the robin must die. But what passes among the hunter and hunted? And what of the human witness, who hardly understands the lives of robins, or hawks, or magpies, or even his own species, let alone the ways they experience the extinction of life?
I do not know what a robin’s death means—not to the robin, the hawk, the magpie, or me. But I think I know this: there is no slogan that contains the death of a robin. I think I know some other things, too. One may feel for the life being taken toward death, even as one resists the pull of the feeling toward intervention. One may grieve for a robin, even as one honors the exchange between predator and prey.
All other meanings robins bring with them. And whatever they leave behind belongs to the birds who take them away.
This essay first appeared in the Center for Humans & Nature’s Blog. Featured image of an American Robin at Denver Botanic Gardens by Jared Del Rosso.