Here to return to
NIGHTHAWK AND WHIP-POOR-WILL
RUSTIC people are a little shy of theories and “book-learning.” Not long ago — it was early in March — I met an old man who lives by him self in a kind of hermitage in the woods, and who knows me in a general way as a bird student. We greeted each other, and I inquired whether he had seen any bluebirds yet. No, he said, it wasn’t time.
“Oh, but they are here,” I answered. “I saw a flock of ten on the 26th of February.” Good-natured incredulity came out all over his face.
“Did you hear them sing?” he asked.
“Yes,” said I; “and, furthermore, I saw some this forenoon very near your house.”
“Well,” he remarked, “according to my experience, it is too early for bluebirds. Besides, they never go in flocks; and when anybody tells me at this time of the year that he has seen a flock of bluebirds, I always know that he has seen some blue snowbirds.”
He spoke with an air of finality which left me nothing to do but to smile and pass on.
This little incident called to mind another, and that put it into my head to write this article.
A farmer, who had seen me passing his house and loitering about his lanes and fields for several years, often with an opera-glass in my hand, one day hailed me to ask whether the nighthawk and the whip-poor-will were the same bird, as he had heard people say. I assured him (or rather I told him — it turned out that I had not made him sure) that they were quite distinct, and proceeded to remark upon some of the more obvious points of difference between the two, especially as to their habits and manner of life. He listened with all deference to what I had to offer, but as I concluded and turned to leave him, he said: “Well, some folks say they’re the same. They say one’s the he one and t’ other’s the she one; but I guess they ain’t.”
Verily, thought I, popular science lectures are sometimes a failure. Not long afterward I was telling the story to a Massachusetts man, a man who had made a collection of birds’ eggs in his time.
“Why,” said he, “aren’t they the same? I always understood that they were the male and female of the same species. That was the common belief where I was brought up.”
The confusion of the two birds is widespread, in spite of Audubon’s testimony that he had seldom seen a farmer or even a boy in the United States who did not know the difference between them. But, while they resemble each other closely, they are sufficiently unlike to be classified not only as separate species, but as species of different genera. As for the difference in their habits, it is such as any one may see and appreciate. The nighthawk, for all its name, is not a night bird. It is most active at twilight, — in other words, it is crepuscular instead of nocturnal, — but is often to be seen flying abroad at midday. The whip-poor-will, on the contrary, is quiet till after dark. Then it starts into full ness of life, singing with the utmost enthusiasm, till the listener wonders where it can find breath for such rapid and long-continued efforts. The nighthawk is not a musician. While flying it frequently utters a single note, of a guttural-nasal quality, almost indistinguishable from the so-called bleat of the woodcock; but, in place of singing, it indulges in a fine aerial tumbling performance, much in the manner of the snipe. This performance I have many times observed in early summer from the Public Garden in Boston. I have seen it also in September, though it is doubtless much less common at that season.
The bird rises gradually to a considerable height, and presently drops like a stone almost to the ground. At the last moment it arrests itself suddenly, and then is heard a very peculiar “booming” noise, whether produced by the wings or by the voice, I will not presume to say.
The most attractive feature of the nighthawk, to my eye, is its beautiful and peculiar flight — a marvel of ease and grace, and sufficient to distinguish it at a glance from every other New England bird. It is a creature of the upper air, never skimming the ground, so far as I know, and as it passes overhead you may easily see the large white patch in the middle of each long wing — a beauty spot, by the way, which is common to both sexes, and is wanting in the whip-poor-will.
The whip-poor-will’s chief distinction is its song — a song by itself, and familiar to every one. Some people call it mournful, and I fear there are still a few superstitious souls who listen to it with a kind of trembling. I have heard of the bird’s being shot because the inhabitants of a house could not bear its doleful and boding cry, as they were pleased to consider it. To my ears it is sweet music. I take many an evening stroll on purpose to enjoy it, and am perennially thankful to Audubon for saying that he found the whip-poor-will’s “cheering voice” more interest ing than the song of the nightingale.
It will surprise unscientific readers to be told that the nearest relatives of whip-poor-wills and nighthawks are the swifts and the humming birds. As if a chimney swift were more like a whip-poor-will than like a swallow! and, still more absurd, as if there were any -close relation ship between whip-poor-wills and hummingbirds! Put a whip-poor-will and a ruby-throated hum mer side by side and they certainly do look very little alike — the big whip-poor-will, with its mottled plumage and its short, gaping beak, and the tiny hummingbird with its burnished feathers and its long needle of a bill. Evidently there is no great reliance to be placed upon outside show, or what scientific men call “external characters.” We might as well say that the strawberry vine and the apple-tree were own cousins. Yes, so we might, for the apple-tree and the strawberry vine are cousins — at least they are members of the same great and noble family, the family of the roses! We shall never get far, in science or in anything else, until we learn to look below the surface.