For the Birds Radio Program: Bug Catching

Original Air Date: Sept. 12, 1990

It’s easier to catch bugs as a bird than a human. (3:58) Date verified.

Audio missing


Last week the Wisconsin DNR sent me an adult male nighthawk with a badly broken wing. Somehow a 2 1/2 ounce bird with hollow bones doesn’t hold up well against a Volvo. It takes at least a few weeks for a bird’s wing to mend, and this break is a particularly bad one. Since nighthawks eat nothing except flying insects, most of them have migrated from the Northland already, and the rest will be gone soon. I’m suddenly faced with the prospect of a nighthawk in my office for the whole winter.

I keep Otto on my window sill, where he calmly sits like all the other nighthawks I’ve care for. But Otto shows more curiosity than the others—he actively watches all around, his eyes following migrating hawks outside the window and hide-and-go-seeking children within. His big eyes and fluffy feathers are an irresistible distraction, especially when I have a lot of work in front of me. When I place my hand in front of him, he waddles on and nestles, which satisfies some deep maternal instinct within me.

My littlest human baby is four years old now. He used to sit on my lap for endless hours, listening while I read his stories or my bird journals aloud. At first, before he learned to crawl or even to squirm, he was a captive audience. As he grew, he still found comfort in snuggling for at least an hour or two each day. But now he runs in with the urgent question, “What goes ha ha ha kerplunk?” I’ve hardly understood the riddle before he blurts out the answer, “Someone laughing his head off,” and runs out to play “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Meet My Little Ponies in Dinosaur Land.” I’m left out in the cold, except that now I have a warm little nighthawk nestling in my hand listening to bird journals.

My basic diet for nighthawks is Purina High-Pro dog food mixed with applesauce, gelatin, a few raisins, and bird vitamins and minerals. But this guy is going to be here during his winter mold, which means I should mix in some natural food, too. So for the first time in my life, I’ve been searching for and actually killing bugs. Back in high school biology, we had to make insect collections, but I’m afraid I was too much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Normal Bates—I couldn’t bring myself to kill a fly. So I collected pre-killed bugs from car grills and inside ceiling light fixtures. My collection looked rattier than anyone else’s, but I wasn’t much interested in appearances. That was then—now I need fresh bugs.

So I stalk grasshoppers and dragonflies in my backyard. I’d never paid much attention to them before except to notice that big movements of both coincide with major bird migration. Now, in order to catch them, I have to study them. And I see that the dragonflies are stalking, too, sneaking up on tinier bugs and flipping out their enormous mouth parts to snap them up, like entomological falcons. If I spot a dragonfly and swat him quickly, it isn’t too bad, but if I watch one for any length of time, somehow I just can’t bring myself to kill it. I have an even tougher time with big-eyed grasshoppers. I sure wouldn’t make it as a kestrel, or even as a warbler.

At night I switch to crickets and moths, again using the “swat first, look second” approach. If my eyes momentarily meet a pair of cricket eyes, there’s one little chirper getting a reprieve. So I’m afraid my bug-catching hasn’t been very productive so far. I’ve paid some of the neighborhood kids to be hit men for me, and I’m again eyeing car grills and roadsides for pre-killed bugs. Fortunately, nighthawks aren’t fussy eaters.