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?
What the trajectory of Common Nighthawks tells us about the suburban landscape.
I’m an agnostic in all things but nighthawks, for with the bullbatI hold this belief: one cannot pursue the bird directly; rather, one can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross theirs.
My faith in the bird was born amid their southward migration through Denver, Colorado, in September 2015. I’d gone looking for nighthawks in a place where and at a time when I thought it likely I might see one. Common Nighthawks are (mostly) crepuscular; they hunt for flying insects through dawn and dusk. Walking around central Denver’s Cheesman Park after sunset, eyes aimed upward, I found only brown bats. I sat a while, awaiting night, and watched these other things with wings. Then, I left.
In truth, I just readied to leave. I sat in my car and, though it was a Sunday and though it was evening, I compulsively checked my email. A (lengthy) message from my department chair at the University of Denver greeted me. Compulsively, I read it, though I believe one should neither mix time off with work nor birds with the same. Dusk gave way to night. The bats gave way to a still park.
At the end of the email, nighthawks.
A trio, emerging from the nearby neighborhood, furiously pursued insects under the park’s streetlights. I left my car and followed them. Nighthawks, like swallows, feed on the wing, catching insects as they fly. They are strong, agile fliers. I have seen them cut upward, leaning backward as they do, in pursuit of prey. They make micro-adjustments that give them a “tipsy” appearance, as Pete Dunne puts it in his Field Guide Companion. To me, they appear confident in the air. Untouchable, even. Nighthawks always seem to be beyond their human-observer, even when approaching them—a twist of angles always cutting away. Unlike songbirds, which rarely fly directly at people, this trio chased their prey wherever it went, even if it meant flying directly at me.
An arm’s length away, a nighthawk.
One can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross the trajectory of a nighthawk. I spent this past summer seeking just that. I let my dogs lead me. I indulged every detour and delay. We turned home when they wanted to. We inspected dead ends. We doubled back on trails. We lingered when the dogs wanted to linger. We sat together in fields and on curbs. I suppressed my better judgement of where and when the birds would appear. By maintaining the appearance of not seeking nighthawks, I hoped I could fool serendipity into delivering them.
I did so to try to document the bird’s presence in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, during the bird’s nesting season. A mid-June sighting gave me hope. My dogs and I sought the birds above a buggy marsh at a local open space. The setting sun inspired the complex chorus of catbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows. But I missed a simpler sound: the buzz of the bird I sought, the distinct, nasal “peent” of a nighthawk. As dusk deepened, my dogs decided it was time to head back to our car. (One dog is afraid of the dark and what it means in Colorado: wild canids. The other is simply not much for walking.) I obliged, though I wanted to keep seeking.
Nearer to the car, the dogs changed their minds, insisting I let them chase each other around me. Though leashed, the dogs sprinted circles. To keep myself from their tangle, I spun with them. Once, twice, then—and only because the dogs had chosen when to turn back and when to stop for play and when to turn me in the right direction—a nighthawk.
I seek the nighthawk’s trajectory because I measure the world by this bird. They arrive in Colorado late in spring migration, just as that season tips toward summer. They leave before autumn begins whispering of winter. But the bird isn’t just a sign of the seasons. Their presence speaks of the complexity of our climate, the non-human world, and the human/non-human nexus. Obligate feeders on flying insects, the Common Nighthawk’s steep population decline over the past half-century may relate to broader declines in their prey, owing to pesticide use, the warming planet, and other factors. Nighthawks are losing habitat, too. Some of that habitat is their wild habitat of grasslands and forests. But they’re also losing built habitats in urban and suburban environments. Nighthawks use the flat, gravel-covered roofs of many urban buildings as nesting sites. Unfortunately for the birds, most new development forgoes gravel for other materials, such as rubber. (Patches of gravel, installed on flat roofs, are a potential compromise that may support nesting nighthawks. New Hampshire’s “Project Nighthawk” is experimenting with this.)
The fate of Common Nighthawks is tethered to us, in ways that the fates of many non-human animals are. But it isn’t easy to observe our entangled destinies. Nighthawks are not like the chickadees that visit our feeders, the finches and phoebes that nest on nooks around our houses, the corvids that seem more at home around our homes than we do, or the hawks that hunt on our highways. Nighthawks nest on our skylines. They migrate at incredible heights, and the vast majority of these birds pass over our summer and fall activities without being noticed. By day, they disappear into trees, grasses, and rocks. Their cryptic feathering renders them invisible. If you’ve ever lucked into a sighting of a nighthawk on a tree, you know how easy it would be to overlook the bird. You also know that nighthawks don’t care that you’ve found them. Their faith in their camouflage, their use of difficult to access perches, and the fact that they have no need for daytime activity allows them to tolerate proximity to us.
Ultimately, my trajectory and the Common Nighthawk’s did not intersect during their nesting season. Perhaps this is a sign of the species’ decline or of my neighborhood’s hostility, with our grassy lawns and dependence on pesticides, to the birds and their prey. Perhaps it is only that I have not yet found our shared trajectory.
But I have learned something else from this effort. Pursue this uncommon bird, during the uncommon hours of dawn and dusk, and you will find the trajectory of other uncommon creatures. Those brown bats, one of which dropped me to my knees by hunting at the brim of my hat. A raccoon, ambling down a drainage ditch. A coyote, patrolling an undeveloped field. Fox kits, playfully hunting along a neighborhood path. Great Horned Owls, perched in suburban parking lots and cemeteries. A Mule Deer pair, cautiously watching the human animals who ride bikes, and toss baseballs, and walk dogs while seeking nighthawks in fields near riparian corridors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fewwritten 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.