For the Birds Radio Program: Fourth of July Birds

Original Air Date: July 4, 1986

Laura talks about a bird we usually hear while waiting for fireworks, the Common Nighthawk, and the bird on our national emblem.

Duration: 3′21″


(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

That buzz is a familiar summer evening sound in downtown Duluth and Superior. If you go down to the harbor area to view the fireworks display, you may well hear a Common Nighthawk before the booms begin.

(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

The Nighthawk is not a hawk at all–it’s an insect eater related to the Whip-poor-will. It darts erratically through the evening sky, catching flying insects with its huge mouth. The wide gape of the nighthawk and its relatives is what gave it its family name–the goatsucker family. In European farms of pre-industrial days, when a farmer’s goats were dry, he’d look around the barn, and sure enough, an obviously well-fed goatsucker would be nonchalantly sitting on a horizontal beam, its round, wide mouth just the right size to have milked the goats dry. Even after ornithologists set the record straight, the name stuck.

Whip-poor-wills and Nighthawks have eyes something like owls, with large pupils to maximize the available light–they compete with bats for their only food–night-flying insects. Because the pupils are so large, nighthawks have poor adaptability to bright daylight, so they do little all day but lay around waiting for Duluth’s nightlife to start.

Nighthawks are one of the few native birds that have increased their population directly because of civilization. Their nesting activities used to be limited to rocky bluffs, but they quickly discovered that the loose stones on flat-roofed buildings were a perfect, well protected place for laying their eggs. Now more nighthawks nest in big cities than in more rural areas.

Although the Nighthawk’s buzz is a familiar sound on the Fourth of July evening, most people think of another bird on national holidays–the Bald Eagle.

America’s national emblem looks like a bold symbol of militarism– sort of an avian Rambo. But Bald Eagles are really not very macho. Their heavy bodies and long, broad wings make them too clumsy and unmaneuverable to catch birds or mammals. Bald Eagles are fishermen. And although they are quite adept at catching fish in their huge claws, called “talons,” they’re lazy–they’d just as soon pick up dead fish as live ones. Except during their breeding season, they often congregate at dams, where dead fish are easy to find.

Bald Eagles nest in the main crotch of a tall tree or on a rocky bluff–their nests are called aeries. Eagles are devoted to their mates and share their domestic responsibilities equitably, unlike some macho stereotype. They mate for life. A pair returns to the same nest year after year, building it up more and more–a nest can grow over the years to be 20 feet deep and 10 feet wide. Except man, the Bald Eagle’s worst enemy is the Great Horned Owl, which apparently can easily take over an eagle’s nest by brute force for its own use.

Bald Eagles not only have a fairly meek and mild lifestyle–they also have a peculiarly meek and mild call. Is this the sound of a Rambo?

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”