For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawk City
Laura misses a lot of her son’s soccer plays when nighthawks are on the move.
(I think this is the right script for this date.)
It’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting at a children’s soccer game. My six-year-old Tommy is goalie for the Lakeside team, and his buddy Max is playing defense. Most of the parents are more engaged in the game than the kindergarteners and first graders out on the field are, but I’m afraid I not only don’t know the score—I’m not even sure who’s ahead, and I completely missed the two important saves that my own little boy made and will be boasting about for weeks. My eyes are glued on the sky, where thousands of nighthawks are coursing through.
These graceful birds dart through the air, their long, slender wings pulsing quickly and then raising in a ‘V’ as they rock back and forth a second or two before fluttering again. Their movements seem as random as the dragonflies dotting the late afternoon sky, the dragonflies that are fueling their flight.
Late August and early September mark the season of the nighthawk in the northland. Although they breed throughout the United States and Canada in open and urban areas both, people don’t notice nighthawks much until fall migration. The birds appear, as if by magic, in late May, and are heard peenting and booming in the evening sky throughout the summer, but they don’t pierce the consciousness of most people until they gather by the hundreds in their loose migratory flocks. In flight they look big with their 24” wingspan, but they tip the scales at less than 3 ounces. These fragile creatures fuel their flight all the way to Brazil with flying insects. Nighthawks are adapted so well to catching insects on the wing that they have lost the ability to eat anything else. I’m a licensed rehabilitator who specializes in nighthawks, and the most interesting thing I’ve learned about them is that most of the adults I get cannot swallow. All they know how to do is aim for bigs with their capacious mouth hanging open, and because of the speed of the nighthawk’s flight, the bugs go down the hatch. So whenever I receive an injured adult nighthawk, I know that even after I’ve taught it to open its mouth so I can put the food in, I’ll still have to rub its throat for a week or two until it relearns how to swallow. Of course, young nighthawks still being fed by their parents are used to swallowing. It’s just as they become independent and start catching all of their own food on the wing that their throat muscles atrophy.
Nighthawks are really little more than wings, mouth, and stomach. Their wings are exceptionally large relative to their body weight, and the delicate pointed shape of the wing is what makes possible their aerial maneuvers designed to chase down and catch the most elusive beetles and moths. But these extraordinary wings also are exceptionally vulnerable to breakage. Right now I have five nighthawks sitting in my family room. One has a head injury and was partially blinded by an automobile. The other four all have broken wings. A nighthawk with a broken wing is doomed to die in the natural world—its beak and tongue are too small and weak to pick up crawling insects, so it will starve before many days go by. Even a minor sprain that would heal up in a few days in most birds will kill a nighthawk, because before it can fly again it will starve. The very fact that nighthawks are so successful at their specialized role means that they can never succeed at anything else. But as long as there are insects in the air, there will be nighthawks.
My little boy and I walk the few blocks home from the soccer game. Tommy is jubilant—his team won 7-4. But suddenly he stops walking and his eyes open wide—he just noticed a huge flock of nighthawks in the sky above us. Together we wish them godspeed on the long journey ahead, and hand in hand we watch as one by one they disappear into the pink sunset sky. Come spring they’ll be back, we know, bringing warmth and beauty to the northland once again.