Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Woodcut from Rascal by the wonderful artist John Schoenherr, who gave me permission to use this, my all-time favorite nighthawk illustration.

This is a transcript of today's radio program:

This week I got busy with a project that required me to head out to two different hardware stores. On August 27, I was in the parking lot of Dougherty’s when I looked up to see hundreds of nighthawks passing over. The next day I was walking to Marshall Hardware in my neighborhood and there the nighthawks were again, streaming to the southwest, as always following the general direction of the shoreline.

Even when nighthawks are on a migratory mission, they’re constitutionally incapable of flying in a straight line. A distance of five miles as the crow flies would be more like eight or nine miles as the nighthawk flies. They dart and weave through the skies like narrow-winged butterflies. In that respect, they’re a living example of the precept that you are what you eat, since butterflies, moths, and other flying bugs are the only things these obligate insectivores can eat.

Nighthawks are so specialized at downing insects on the wing that they can’t eat anything else. Their capacious gape comes at the expense of a reduced, loosely-attached beak that can’t pinch or grab, and a reduced tongue so tiny that it can’t help the process of swallowing. Nighthawks aim at their prey with their mouth open wide, hitting them at about 5.3 meters per second, or 11 miles per hour—fast enough that the bugs go down the hatch without the nighthawks even needing to use any muscles to swallow. When I rehabbed nighthawks and kept a nighthawk licensed for education, I noted that adult males weren’t even capable of swallowing for days or weeks—when I placed food in their mouths, I had to stroke the throat to help the food go down.

The nighthawks I was watching winging over the parking lots weren’t in need of a rehabber—they were darting about in the skies, grabbing food as they traveled. They have a long way to go—they’re headed for Texas, and then they’ll go down Mexico way. Virtually all of them will funnel down through Central America, cross the Panama Canal, and not park themselves until they reach South America. Their winter range isn’t well understood, but there’s some evidence that it centers around Uruguay and Paraguay.

Nighthawks reach north country later than most migrants and leave earlier—their first flights begin in July, and peak sometime in mid to late August. Mike Hendrickson counted 43,690 in 2 ½ hours on August 26, 1990. We haven’t had flights that huge in over a decade—a host of data from throughout North America indicates that nighthawks have significantly declined since the 1960s. We humans have managed to have bad impacts on nighthawk food and habitat, and our automobiles and powerlines have a literal impact on them. These birds are completely inoffensive, eating insect pests and causing no trouble at all. I’ve known many individual nighthawks from my rehabbing days, and they’re universally gentle spirited birds—the Mr. Rogers of the bird world.

It’s depressing to think of how the former huge numbers of nighthawks have dwindled, but pessimism doesn’t help us or nighthawks. When I look up on a lovely afternoon and see hundreds flying over, an unexpected and lovely gift from the earth, winging its way into my heart through the skies, I feel a wave of joy and gratitude. And really, the joy and gratitude any of us feel when we see a natural wonder is one of the few hopes nighthawks and other precious but inconspicuous creatures have. As Dr. Seuss wrote, Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. So pay attention to the afternoon skies, and if you see a group of nighthawks, wherever you are, let the sight lighten your heart. It’s lovely to work to help something not out of fear, but out of joy and gratitude for the gift of sharing our little planet with such a gentle and beautiful treasure.

I've been trying to catch up with podcasting "For the Birds." You can listen to this and other programs at Laura Erickson's "For the Birds."