For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawks

Original Air Date: Aug. 23, 1989

Nighthawks are migrating, and the baby Laura had been raising is with them. (4:14)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

Last week I released the baby nighthawk I’d had since July 25th—she was just about full grown and was flying strongly and I knew it was time.

There’s joy and sadness in releasing a bird. I was awfully fond of my little nighthawk. I’d never handled one in my life until this summer, when I suddenly ended up with three. Before I got to know them personally they were just another species—true, a species easy to find by its peenting sounds at dusk—a guaranteed bird on any day of summer birding. And they were interesting, too—I already knew that they eat flying insects which they catch in flight with their huge mouth and that they migrate in huge flocks, swirling through the skies on ethereal light wings—the closest we have to avian butterflies. And I knew about the courtship flight of the males, ending in a plummet to earth and a big booming sound. All that I had seen in the wild, though at a distance. But I had never known just how gentle and lovely a nighthawk is in person.

If it’s true that the meek shall inherit the earth, one day the sky will be filled with nighthawks. These birds may be absolutely defenseless against attack—their claws are weak and dull, their bill fragile and soft—yet their true strength shows in the fact that their order has been on earth since the late Eocene, 40 million years ago. Their numbers have been steadily decreasing in the past few decades, a period of time when the philosophy that might makes right has flourished. The nighthawk system is perhaps more akin to that of the American revolutionaries, who believed that right makes might, and won a war against a far stronger power on faith rather than power.

Like Winnie the Pooh, a nighthawk is a bird of very little brain. There’s not much room left in its head after squeezing in enormous nocturnal eyes and an immense mouth. But there obviously is a clock in there, and a compass. Its instinctive wisdom, which transcends learning, tells it to migrate in August, before hawks start their big flights. Without a map or directions from a friendly gas station attendant, it weaves its way through the sky ever southward, resting in the heat of the day, but ever continuing on until it reaches Argentina. And somehow, my little nighthawk, safe on my little boy Tommy’s windowsill, knew this. Every evening she got restless to join her comrades in the sky. Sunday when I brought her outside she sat on a neighbor’s garage roof all morning. There was a thunderstorm that afternoon, and she stretched out her wings—perhaps an instinct to protect her own babies one day, or perhaps just because she wanted a shower bath. But she got thoroughly soaked, and when she tried to fly, she fell to earth, so I brought her back inside to dry off and get a good home-cooked meal. A part of me wanted her to want to stay. But that afternoon she started flailing at the window screen to be let out again, and so we set her free. She flew strongly in the sky around and around in ever-increasing circles, just as a flock of nighthawks passed over. And suddenly she was part of the flock, and I could no longer pick her out. She had spent a little time in the hands of a human, but now was being carried on a north wind to far away places in a part of the world she had seen only in her mind’s eye, her course bequeathed to her by her parents and their parents before them—the legacy of every nighthawk, a gift far more precious than a big brain.

Now the sight of nighthawks in the August sky has taken on a new richness, conjuring memories of a little nighthawk whose path intersected mine for a short time, before she rose at last into the sky, where a nighthawk belongs.

(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

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