For the Birds Radio Program: Hawk Ridge Assistants

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 1992

As Laura counted hawks at Hawk Ridge in August, she had the most unusual assistants to help her spot distant raptors–two little nighthawks. Date confirmed.

Audio missing


This year, from August 17 through August 31, I was the official hawk counter at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth. Sitting on a dusty roadside all day long counting hawks is exactly my idea of the perfect job. Periodically, visitors would show up, ask a few questions, and maybe stick around for an hour or so. That’s always fun. I had to keep my eyes on the sky, but the hawk count wasn’t huge yet so I didn’t have a problem losing track. It’s always fun to see hawks that I pretty much take for granted through the eyes of a novice birder, or especially through the eyes of a lost tourist who was simply asking for directions to Perkins, when I point out a soaring Bald Eagle up close.

Much of the time I had the ridge pretty much to myself, and enjoyed swirling flocks of Cedar Waxwings and ravens chasing Ospreys through a clear blue sky to my heart’s content. Actually, I wasn’t completely alone. I brought two little companions along every day: Fred and Annie the nighthawks. Each morning I’d set their pet carrier next to my stool and open it. Immediately they’d run to the door and pop out, then stretch and fluff out their feathers on the gravel next to me. Then they’d look around for the best spot on the gravel next to my chair. People frequently asked me why they didn’t ever try to fly or run away. All I could answer is that nighthawks are companionable birds that seem to like my company. I’ve had Fred for fifteen months now, and he’s very devoted to me. Annie came from the Superior Animal Shelter just last month. She had busted her wing and leg badly on what was most likely her maiden flight. She was at the critical stage of adolescence when birds know darned well what they are, so she didn’t imprint on me. She quickly got attached to Fred and Ginger, but eventually learned to accept me, too.

Fred really feels at home at the ridge, since gravel is a nighthawk’s natural habitat. But he grew up a wild bird, and knows darned well that hawks are dangerous. When Merlins or sharp-shins fly over, he ducks low and waddles over, under my stool or even back into his pet carrier. Annie doesn’t have Fred’s experience and savvy, so she just watches even the most dangerous hawks cruising over with curiosity. Annie has spotted a couple of kestrels so high up in the ozone that I wouldn’t have even noticed them without seeing her staring up. It’s nice to have a birding companion who is so good at spotting birds.

Ginger, the nighthawk with the head wound, came up several times to the ridge before the weather got too cold for her. SHe’s been healing steadily all summer, though she’s developed several secondary infections. She likes being out in the sunshine, especially sitting on my lap, which turns out to be her favorite place. Having a trusting little nighthawk on your lap is a pleasant state of being when you’re not wearing dry-clean only clothes. Ginger is still too busy healing to pay much notice to hawks, but she’s pleasant company nonetheless at the ridge.

The name “nighthawk” is not only inappropriate because nighthawks aren’t even remotely related to hawks. It’s also poor because nighthawks are so utterly meek and mild. Most of the people who come up to the ridge find my little companions charming, but a few have warned their children away with fearful words about sharp claws and vicious beaks. Fred just looks at them mildly, and appears somewhat amused. I’m sure if he were properly equipped, he’d even raise his eyebrows.