For the Birds Radio Program: AOU Meeting

Original Air Date: July 10, 1992

This is about taking Ginger to the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting. I’m pretty certain this is the correct date. The meeting was June 24-27, and this is the one date open with a lot of confirmed dates around it.

Audio missing


Last week, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the oldest and most prestigious professional ornithological society in the Western Hemisphere, met in Ames, Iowa. There were about 435 ornithologists in attendance, along with one bird—Ginger the nighthawk. She had received a head injury from a car collision, and was still depending on me for medications and feeding. The long drive from Duluth to Ames was much more pleasant with a nighthawk at my side. And Ginger seemed to enjoy it pretty much, too. We both listened with interest to bird recordings on y car cassette player. I just bought a new tape that has all the New World nightjars, and Ginger really perked up when it came to the nighthawk calls. She pretty much ignored songbird calls on my other tapes, but grew visibly upset when owls called, so I fast-forwarded through those parts.

Ginger stayed in my dorm room while I attended paper sessions and programs I felt like a college kid again, hiding an illicit animal from the dormitory authorities. Of course, many of the ornithologists knew I’d brought her–they thought it a tremendous joke to bring a bird along to an ornithological convention. Millicent Ficken, an authority on chickadees, came to my room just to see her. But I had to keep Ginger hidden from the maids. When I was out of the room in the morning, I kept her in a cardboard box, open at the top, on a bookshelf. Nighthawks are so calm and laid back that I knew she wouldn’t give herself away. By lunchtime, the maids had come and gone, and Ginger could spend the rest of the day as she pleased. Most of the time she stayed on my desk, but occasionally she fluttered down to the floor and wandered about. Her right eye and ear are damaged beyond repair, and she can’t fly at all, probably because the inner ear helps maintain balance. On the ground, though, she balances well and waddles around with the Charlie Chaplin gait peculiar to nighthawks.

For some reason, captive nighthawks seem actually scared of the dark. Fred, whom I’ve had for over a year now, wanders through the house searching for me if I turn off the lights without putting him in his box for the night. Every night in Iowa, Ginger hopped off the desk to the floor as soon as I turned off the light. I always turned the light back on after five minutes or so to see where she had gone, and she was always in the same place—on the floor next to the head of the bed, on whichever side I was facing. Each morning found her right there in the same spot, but she had obviously walked around during the night, because there were three or four separate sets of droppings on the floor at the foot of the bed. Not only are nighthawks pleasant company, they also housebreak pretty fast.

During the past weeks, Ginger has become stronger and perkier, and seems to be adjusting to her sight and hearing loss well. But she’s not back to normal yet. Several ornithologists on my dorm floor reported to me that they’d heard her calling from my room. I didn’t know how to confess to them that it wasn’t Ginger at all—it was me, practicing for the AOU’s official bird calling contest.