Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
Images of the Past
Whip-poor-wills frequent the nooks and crannies of this great continent, back-country, where rutted roads thread their way over forested hills; where hollows fragrant with rhododendrons wear long scarves of white mist. They are part and parcel of the folklore of America.
To hear them call is to invoke images of the past, shadowy moments of history now fading fast: pioneer cabins in isolated clearings, the ephemeral passage of the American Indian, lonely youth moving across Civil War battlefields.
Does their calling mock our insatiable passion for progress, our penchant for violence, or are they impartial, stoically indifferent to the maelstrom of human events?
As with most birds and animals, they have already achieved near-perfection. They exist on the outer periphery of our imperfect attention. Yet, to be aware, to listen to them, is to cool our tempers, soothe our frayed nerves, give us a sense of exactly where we are, and who we are. If we would but listen.
The color of tree bark, with something of the browness of dead leaves, the whip-poor-wills slumber daytimes, rousing themselves only at dusk to pursue their nocturnal excursions. They nest all the way from southwestern Canada and eastern Texas across much of the eastern United States.
Sometimes they alight along rural roads to take a dust bath or feed on insects attracted to the warmth of the hard surface. Caught thus in headlight beams, their eyes glow bright orange -red in the darkness . Most of their food is caught on the wing, engulfed by gaping, wide mouths, and consists of moths, mosquitoes, gnats and swarms of other insects.
In Spring in Washington, Louis J. Halle describes the voice of the whip-poor-will as a "rapid, vibrant, steady pulsation of sound, like something organic in the earth itself, like the beating of one's own heart."
Halle's empathic description of the whip-poor-will's song seems to match the warp and woof of much of his writing. Consider this beautifully rendered thought: "Here in the dawn, I think I have been mistaken all this time in regarding the earth as a place of tears and tribulation for men aspiring to an imagined heaven. This earth itself is our heaven. As for the philosophers and scientists, they have not explained why the earth should be beautiful. They are old men of the evening; they long for heaven because they face the grave." Fitting thoughts while listening to exuberant nocturnal music.
More versatile in their flight than any man-made contraption, the nightjars of which the Eastern whip-poor-will is a member, are supreme masters of the air. Few and far between are the humans who have been fortunate enough to see much of their flight, much less their courtship dance, but listen to this account of their aerial agility by Winsor Marrett Tyler, in Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds:
"As the bird flew about, it sailed a good deal, wheeling around with some tilting from one side to the other, the wings held out straight and flat from the body with no, or very little, bend at the wrist joint."
Then he gives us a dizzying description of the bird's more intricate maneuvers: " . . . at times it increased its speed . . . appearing and disappearing among the branches, ever changing its direction, either sailing or flapping its wings, swerving sharply from side to side, heeling over till one wing pointed nearly to the zenith and the other to the earth, then snapping back to an even keel. It shot straight upward, dived head downward, and doubled back, twisting and gyrating with such rapidity that it seemed to be tumbling in the air."
The few people who have witnessed the courtship dance of the whip-poor-will describe it as a series of back-and-forth movements, the female sometimes lowering her head and spreading her wings, the male occasionally touching his bill to hers. Some observers describe little purring and popping sounds emitted by both birds.
Frontier ornithologist and army Major Charles Bendire wrote that "their love making looked exceedingly human, and the female acted as timid and bashful as many young maidens would when receiving the first declarations of their would-be lovers, while the lowering of her head might easily be interpreted as being done to hide her blushes."
Here toward the end of the twentieth century, I Listen for whip-poor-wills far beyond the city, beyond the crossroads; beyond the relentless whir of clocks, calendars and computers.
I hear their night songs from over the shadowy hills beyond Revenge, along the stream called Bowl-spinner, out in back of the old E. U. B. Church on Pine Grove Road, up Rich Hollow, and every so often along Snortin' Ridge Road. The calls echo from forgotten hollows and draws; places where honeysuckle intertwines with the purplish-red whips of blackberry tangles. Forgotten spots where the weathered slats of corn cribs, the remnants of root cellars and spring houses speak of other times.
And I seem to hear Louis Halle's voice reminding me: "How extraordinary if this were altogether uninspired! We live ourselves in the mists of time, and cannot cast our vision beyond it. The world of our senses is purely spectacular."
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