For the Birds Radio Program: Scarlett and Ashley

Original Air Date: Sept. 1, 1989

Laura named two nighthawks she’s cared for this year Scarlett and Ashley, and they seem to have lived up to their names. (date confirmed) (4:11)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

Just in case you heard my stirring commentary last week about releasing a baby nighthawk I’ve been caring for, one who was destined to join her fellow nighthawks high in the sky where nighthawks belong, I now have this brief update: Never Mind.

Three days after I sent the bird off on her long journey to South America, Dave Evans, the Hawk Ridge bander, brought her back. It seems that in her three day journey she had traveled as far as Tioga Street, two blocks north of my house, where she was begging strangers for handouts. This caused something of a problem for the strangers—it seems that many people are alarmed by the sight of a nighthawk sitting atop their car, its wings aflutter, its huge mouth wide open, making hissing sounds. So I brought her in the house and tried again the next day to release her. Again she flew off, but that evening tried mooching off some people on Peabody Street. Apparently nighthawks have a delayed imprinting period, and she now thinks she’s human. Normal nighthawks are well into migration now, but this little one apparently has no intention of making the trip, so she’ll have to remain with me for the winter. Come spring I hope I’ve figured out a way of convincing her that she’s a nighthawk—perhaps her hormone levels during the breeding season will do the trick.

But ever since her big three-day adventure, she’s become outgoing and even pushy when she wants food or companionship, completely losing the natural reticence and dignity characteristic of her species. Whenever I feed the little blue jay I’m taking care of the baby nighthawk flies right onto my hand and tries to steal his food. She greets me whenever I come into my office, running to me with outstretched wings, and wants nothing more than to sit on my knee while I type scripts on my word processor. The only thing that hasn’t changed is her great interest in the adult male nighthawk with the torn wing that shared my office until last week. Unfortunately for her, his feelings never changed towards her—whenever she waddled up to him for a friendly chat, he coldly turned his back on her. That’s how I discovered that their names were Scarlett and Ashley. True to form, Ashley clung to his old ways, dreaming forlornly of the beauty and freedom of life before events swept his old world away, while Scarlett pragmatically adapted to the present and rejected the old ways, though she incongruously clung to her girlish love for Ashley even as she spurned everything he stood for.

With the coming of August, every fiber of Ashley’s being told him to head south—he’s expected in Argentina sometime in November. I could tell when nighthawks flew over my yard without even looking out the window—Ashley’s gaze hungrily followed their flight as long as they remained in his view, anxious to join them before they were all gone with the wind. His wing muscles were still quite weak—I expected to keep him over the winter—but I began to feel that his spirit would die the way Ashley Wilkes’ spirit died when he lost Melanie and found himself bereft and unfit in a hostile world. When I brought him out one evening last week he sat still on my hand, looking up into the sky for several long minutes. Then suddenly he took wing, and somehow his injured wing carried him up into the sky. He circled over my head twice before he vanished from sight. I’ll miss him, but I still have Scarlett, and, after all, tomorrow is another day.

(Recording of a Common Nighthawk) This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”