For the Birds Radio Program: Goatsuckers

Original Air Date: June 16, 2004 (estimated date)

Laura and an Elderhostel group just had a splendid evening at a spot near Shannon Lake in Wisconsin, looking at and listening to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills.

Audio missing



One of the most thrilling evenings I’ve spent in years happened just last week. I was teaching an Elderhostel class at Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and we drove to an area near Shannon Lake. It had been clearcut a few years ago, and then burned, and now is open enough to have a bazillion nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. Our group stood on a road with sounds all around us. Interestingly, we were serving as part of the food chain for them, providing large quantities of blood for the mosquitoes that descended upon us. So all the beauty these birds brought to our ears was repaid in protein.

I’ve never before heard so many whip-poor-wills at one time, and never before heard them with a chorus of nighthawks. But apparently the early colonists did—Whip-poor-wills weren’t even identified as a separate species until the early 1800s. Superficially they look a lot like nighthawks, with their muted colors, soft plumage, and huge eyes. Both species have a tiny, fragile beak at the front of a mouth so huge that it gave these birds their popular family name—goatsuckers. The capacious mouth may look capable of suckling on goats, but in reality is used only for catching flying insects, their only source of food.

To distinguish the species, Whip-poor-wills have rounded, rather than pointed, wings, and rectal bristles—stiff feathers along the outer corners of their mouths that make their already huge mouths even huger, giving them a bigger target for catching moths and other insects. Perhaps the longer, more pointed wings of nighthawks make them better aims, or there may be some other reason that they lack these bristles.

Whip-poor-wills and nighthawks both nest on the ground. Nighthawks also nest on rooftops, though this habit seems to be literally dying out in areas with burgeoning crow populations. Both species are declining, as I’ve noticed directly. I’ve always had trouble finding good Whip-poor-will areas, and never heard more than one bird at a time until I found Shannon Lake. And though nighthawks used to be quite common flying over downtown Duluth, UMD, and the College of St. Scholastica, where flat top roofs abound, in recent years they’ve been almost impossible to see or hear in these areas. So it was with great joy that we not only heard them making their nasal peenting sound, but also saw and heard them diving straight for the ground and fluttering off just a foot or two before impact with a weird booming call that almost sounds like it’s gasping at the close call.

So although in most places nighthawks and whip-poor-wills seem to be in trouble, they’re apparently doing quite well at Shannon Lake. And listening to the recordings I made that night will help me recapture the splendor and joy of that lovely evening. Of course, hearing the buzzing mosquitoes that swarmed about my microphone will recapture another element of that otherwise splendid experience.