Birds - Nighthawk
( Originally Published 1904 )
(Chordeiles virginianus) Goatsucker family
Called also: NIGHTJAR; BULL-BAT; MOSQUITO HAWK; WILL - O' - THE - WISP ; PISK ; PIRAMIDIG ; LONG - WINGED GOATSUCKER
Length—9 to to inches. About the same length as the robin, but apparently much longer because of its very wide wing-spread.
Male and Female—Mottled blackish brown and rufous above, with a multitude of cream-yellow spots and dashes. Lighter below, with waving bars of brown on breast and underneath. White mark on throat, like an imperfect horseshoe; also a band of white across tail of male bird. These latter markings are wanting in female. Heavy wings, which are partly mottled, are brown on shoulders and tips, and longer than tail. They have large white spots, conspicuous in flight, one of their distinguishing marks from the whippoorwill. Head large and depressed, with large eyes and ear-openings. Very small bill.
Range—From Mexico to arctic islands.
Migrations—May. October. Common summer resident.
The nighthawk's misleading name could not well imply more that the bird is not : it is not nocturnal in its habits, neither is it a hawk, for if it were, no account of it would be given in this book, which distinctly excludes birds of prey. Stories of its chicken-stealing prove to be ignorant rather than malicious slanders. Any one disliking the name, however, surely cannot complain of a limited choice of other names by which, in different sections of the country, it is quite as commonly known.
Too often it is mistaken for the whippoorwill. The night-hawk does not have the weird and woful cry of that more dismal bird, but gives instead a harsh, whistling note while on the wing, followed by a vibrating, booming, whirring sound that Nuttall likens to "the rapid turning of a spinning wheel, or a strong blowing into the bung-hole of an empty hogshead." This peculiar sound is responsible for the name nightjar, frequently given to this curious bird. It is said to be made as the bird drops suddenly through the air, creating a sort of stringed instrument of its outstretched wings and tail. When these wings are spread, their large white spots running through the feathers to the under side should be noted to further distinguish the nighthawk from the whippoorwill, which has none, but which it otherwise closely resembles. This booming sound, coming from such a height that the bird itself is often unseen, was said by the Indians to be made by the shad spirits to warn the scholes of shad about to ascend the rivers to spawn in the spring, of their impending fate.
The flight of the nighthawk is free and graceful in the extreme. Soaring through space without any apparent motion of its wings, suddenly it darts with amazing swiftness like an erratic bat after the fly, mosquito, beetle, or moth that falls within the range of its truly hawk-like eye.
Usually the nighthawks hunt in little companies in the most sociable fashion. Late in the summer they seem to be almost gregarious. They fly in the early morning or late afternoon with beak wide open, hawking for insects, but except when the moon is full they are not known to go a-hunting after sunset. During the heat of the day and at night they rest on limbs of trees, fence-rails, stone walls, lichen-covered rocks or old logs—wherever Nature has provided suitable mimicry of their plumage to help conceal them.
With this object in mind, they quite as often choose a hollow surface of rock in some waste pasture or the open ground on which to deposit the two speckled-gray eggs that sixteen days later will give birth to their family. But in August, when family cares have ended for the season, it is curious to find this bird of the thickly wooded country readily adapting itself to city life, resting on Mansard roofs, darting into the streets from the house-tops, and wheeling about the electric lights, making a hearty sup-per of the little, winged insects they attract.