The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Nighthawks
Bill Lindemann, Fredericksburg Standard/Radio Post, Kerrville Daily Times, September 2003, © 2003

Recently while walking on my place west of Fredericksburg just before dusk, I heard a sound from overhead that stopped me in my tracks. Above me was a Common Nighthawk patrolling the evening skies for flying insects. I wish the word "common" in this bird's name was still appropriate for those of us who live in the Hill Country. About 25 years or so, I believe that this bird's call could be heard most evenings just before darkness.

When I was a young boy growing up east of San Antonio, Common Nighthawks were out every evening. I knew them by another name, "bullbats." The bird got this name from the sounds it makes while courting females during the late spring to early summer period. The nighthawk has the ability to make a "booming" sound as air passes over its wings during a dive. The booming sound climaxes just as the bird pulls out of its dive. It is a memorable sound that I would imagine many of you have heard and remember.

The Common Nighthawk also makes a "pee-uit, pee-uit" call as it wafts on the evening breezes in search for mosquitoes and other night-flying insects. Members of the nighthawk family have wide gaping mouths that are used to corral insects in flight. Bristles on the sides of their mouths help guide the insects into their gaping "traps."

Their wide mouths have also given these nocturnal birds another interesting family name, "goatsuckers." Someone got the idea that these birds with wide mouths would rob goat nannies of their milk at night. I have no idea where the term originated, but the goatsucker label is a worldwide term for the bird family. The family name Caprimulgidae in Latin translates "to suck goat's milk." Folklore among birds, or groups of birds, is quite common around the world and often results in lasting names.

Another nighthawk of the Hill Country is the Chuck-Will's-Widow, a common summertime bird that is heard, but seldom seen. Like its nighthawk cousin, the bird hides during the day and comes out at dusk to patrol for insects. This bird gets its name from the four-syllable call it makes "chuck-will's-wi-dow." The call is repeated for hours, and if you sleep with your windows open on warm summer evenings, the sound can wear on your nerves.

Chuck-Will's-Widows do not fly the evening skies, but remain in the safety of surrounding brush to hunt for insects and make their calls. Chuck-Will's-Widows, are brown and larger than the gray nighthawks. Their brown colors give them great camouflage when roosting on the ground among dried leaves. Nighthawks, too, are masters of disguise while roosting - sitting longways on a tree limb (often mesquite), appearing to be part of the limb.

The Chuck-Will's-Widows become silent after their breeding season, becoming very difficult to find and observe before they leave for Central and South America. I hope that times will change so that the Common Nighthawk will return to our evening skies. Both of these birds have important ecological niches to fill and we need both them to be on the job.

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