For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawks and Jays

Original Air Date: Aug. 4, 1989

What’s the difference between nighthawks and jays? As an Irish girl from Chicago who married a Swede, Laura has an interesting theory. (3:32)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

Last week I was entrusted with the care of a two-week old baby nighthawk that was found in a supermarket parking lot. The young of this species are semi-precocial, meaning they hatch feathered-out like baby ducks and chickens, but are fed by their parents like baby robins. Their eyesight is quite keen, and so my little one knows darn well that I’m not his mother. He hasn’t learned yet that I’m not going to eat him up, so no way is he going to beg for food from me. Right now I have to tease his bill open to stuff the food inside, but I hope he’ll get the hang of it soon. I’m also taking care of an adult Nighthawk who broke his wing in June, but he’s easy now that he takes the food off my finger by himself. Nighthawks are relatives of Whip-poor-wills, and adults eat flying insects only—they don’t even need to swallow because at the speed they’re flying the bugs go down by themselves. So it took about two weeks for my poor guy to not only figure out that I was trying to feed him but also how to swallow the food once I got it in his mouth—up till then I had to stroke his throat whenever I fed him.

My adult bird, who I named Danny, is so tame and gentle that I was sure he’d take to the little one right off, but it turns out that he’s of the school that children should be seen and not heard—or maybe even not seen, either. When the baby runs up to him eagerly, lonesome for his father, Danny calmly turns his back. If the baby tries again, Danny walks away. He doesn’t show any sign of aggression toward the baby—I don’t think nighthawks have an aggressive cell in their bodies—he simply can’t be bothered with childish ways. But he does seem intrigued with the baby jay I’m nursing. When the jay squawks at my computer and hammers on the keyboard, the nighthawk stares transfixed.

My theory is that nighthawks are Swedish—at least they act like the Swedes I know, calm and dignified no matter what, yearning for predictability and tranquility in their daily lives, but curious about the odd ways of others. Blue Jays are the Irishmen of the bird world—telling stories to anyone who’ll listen, laughing their heads off at the slightest bit of humor, and always on the lookout for a bit of trouble. A Blue Jay holds a grudge for ever–when one’s attacking a Great Horned Owl you can just about hear him cussing the “Bloody Orangeman!”

Any book of bird distribution will tell you that Blue Jays and nighthawks are both New World species only—there are no Blue Jays in Ireland and no nighthawks in Sweden. But my feeling is that while we should have the deepest respect for reality, we shouldn’t let it control our lives.

If nighthawks could read I’m sure they’d choose the New Yorker—Jays would devour Mad Magazine. Nighthawks are dignity and grace and cool intellect; Blue Jays are fire and passion and curiosity, with a generous helping of downright silliness. I’m an Irish girl from Chicago, so maybe that’s why I understand jays better than nighthawks, but when it came to choosing a mate, I married a Swede. Just as a person needs both a brain and a heart, the world needs both jays and nighthawks. And I’m sure lucky to be taking care of both of them.

(Recording of a Common Nighthawk)

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