For the Birds Radio Program: Ginger the Nighthawk

Original Air Date: June 29, 1992

Picking up a nighthawk on Northwest Airlines flight 404 was only the beginning of a novel adventure. (4:04) Date confirmed

Audio missing


Three weeks ago, a conservation officer from the Leech Lake Reservation found a nighthawk on the side of a road, suffering from a head wound after being struck by a car. He sent the bird to me via Northwest Airlines, who flew it to the Twin Cities and then up to Duluth. Naturally, since it had flown north by Northwest, I was going to name it Cary Grant until I opened the box and discovered it was a female. I already have a nighthawk named Fred, after the children’s television star Mr. Rogers. Fred the nighthawk took an immediate fancy to the new female. Since she’s none the wiser about exactly which Fred he’s named for, I’m calling her Ginger. The name is doubly appropriate since you can tell male from female nighthawks by their throats. Males sport a white throat patch, like Fred Astaire’s dapper bowtie, while females have a ginger-colored throat patch.

Anyway, poor Ginger’s injury was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. She clearly could neither see nor hear on her right side. At first I thought the eye might be salvageable, and Larry Anderson, my veterinarian, gave e some antibiotic drops to try. But we didn’t notice the damage to her skull, hidden by feathers. Within 10 days, it was obvious that the eye was dead. She was also starting to grow unusually lethargic, even by sick nighthawk standards, so I started her on oral amoxycillin. Within several hours of her first dose, she was perkier, and within a few days was acting perfectly normal. Right now her bad eye is ugly, but she’s compensating for the loss of vision by tilting her head. As I originally suspected, she doesn’t seem to have suffered any brain damage. The brain of a nighthawk is not much bigger than a pea and is way in back of the skull. Most of the volume of a nighthawk’s head is taken up by its enormous mouth and eyeballs.

You’d think these birds of little brain wouldn’t be too quick on the uptake, but nighthawks actually seem pretty intelligent. Fred, who is inordinately fond of mealworms, always lights up when I’m carrying my mealworm container, which is really a plastic cookie carton, and he can obviously tell the difference between that and the margarine tub in which I keep his other food. At nighttime when I forget to put him in his bed box, he always waddles to the TV room or my bedroom, wherever I happen to be. That need for companionship gave my poor sister-in-law a fright one night when she was staying in my room. When she heard Fred whapping against the door in the middle of the night, she freaked out. In spite of Ginger’s injury, she quickly learned to recognize me, and doesn’t hiss when I approach even though she hisses when other people, including my children, come near.

At first I kept Fred and Ginger on separate tables, but after the second time I found them side-by-side on the floor, I gave in. Nighthawks like a certain amount of personal space from other nighthawks, and never sit closer than one of two feet apart. This seems odd, since most of the ones I’ve cared for have liked to nestle in the palm of my hand or snuggle in my lap. But even a couple of feet apart, Fred and Ginger seem delighted with companionship. I’m sure they’ll never breed in captivity. Birds become physiologically capable of breeding through courtship behavior, which revs up their hormone levels. For nighthawks to breed, they need the male’s courtship flight, and poor Fred, with his mangled wing, can’t fly. Fortunately, most birds have absolutely no interest in breeding without their courtship rituals. Eagles, swans, and cranes, which mate for life, enjoy a platonic relationship most of the year. So Fred and Ginger should have a satisfying life ahead, though with their boring lifestyle they’ll probably never make it into the movies.