For the Birds Radio Program: North by Northwest

Original Air Date: June 12, 1992

Why would a bird fly in a jet plane just to meet Laura? (date confirmed)

Audio missing


I often find myself at the Duluth International Airport. My husband takes several work-related trips every year, and I just about always see him off and meet him at the airport. A friend once told me in a knowing sort of away that after we’d been married long enough, I’d have better things to do with my time, but I guess 20 years isn’t quite long enough.

Anyway, last Thursday I found myself in my usual waiting spot watching the sky for an airplane, but this time Russ wasn’t on it. I was there to meet a perfect stranger, and not even a human stranger at that. I was at the airport to meet a bird.

Thursday morning, I’d taken a call from a conservation officer at the Leech Lake reservation near Cass Lake, who’d found a nighthawk on a roadside. It was clearly unable to fly or fend for itself, but he didn’t see any obvious injuries. Cass Lake is well over a hundred miles from Duluth. I couldn’t just stuff my kids in the car and drag them on a five-hour round trip journey on the first day of summer vacation. And the conservation officer couldn’t find anyone from there headed for Duluth. So he came up with a novel solution: he packed the little nighthawk in a well-padded cardboard box and put her on an airplane.

Northwest Airlines occasionally transports, free of charge, injured eagles, falcons, and other birds of prey to the Raptor Center in St. Paul. This time they flew a less macho creature. The little nighthawk flew down to the Twin Cities and then switched planes to one flying to Duluth. And now there I was at the airport waiting for the arrival of Flight 404.

I’ve never before waited for a nighthawk at an airport, and I didn’t quite know what to expect, so after the plane arrived, I went to the ticket center to ask where one might pick up a bird. The man on duty didn’t seem quite sure himself, but he suggested I try the cargo office.

I waited in that office with a man and his small son for ten or fifteen minutes. Then an official-looking woman wearing headphones appeared. I asked if this was where a bird would be picked up and she laughed and said, “Oh, you’re the one.” She went out and reappeared with a cardboard box marked “Northwest VIP same day small package service.” Actually, VIB would have been more fitting–a Very Important Bird. The box also had bright green labels marked “Wild Animals” with drawings of a bear, an elephant, a monkey, and a snake. I peeked through one of the punched out airholes to make sure this was really a nighthawk and that it was still alive, but I didn’t dare open the box to show it to the curious little boy and his dad—that would have agitated it when there was still a car ride ahead. I signed the receipt and carried my fragile burden to the parking lot.

I’d remembered to turn my radio off when I stopped the car, an important thing to do whenever transporting injured birds. I drove very carefully, turning corners especially slowly, and brought my little patient in to my own curious little children.

Since this bird had flown north by Northwest, I had every intention of naming it Cary Grant up until the moment I opened the box and discovered that it was a girl. I could hardly name her Carrie—that would have called to mind another movie altogether. No nighthawk has ever taken revenge on anyone, and they simply don’t menstruate. Fred, my permanent resident nighthawk, was looking on with great interest, and his suave and dapper demeanor inspired me to name her Ginger.

Ginger’s wings and legs seemed just fine, but when I looked at her closely, I saw with horror that one of her eyes was terribly damaged, and she quite possibly had a skull fracture. This was something I’d never dealt with before. Next time I’ll tell you what happened, in the continuing saga of “North by Northwest.”