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.
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!”