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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Night-jarring, goat sucking bullbats

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I was clicking Izzy into her booster seat last Saturday about 9 p.m. when she said, “Look Daddy, there’s a bird.” We were on the top deck of Waynesville’s parking garage and it was dark.

“I bet you saw a bat,” I said.

“No Daddy, it’s a bird,” she insisted.

So I turned and looked, and there swooping through the moths and various other insects attracted to the lights of the parking deck was a pair of common nighthawks. Nighthawks belong to a cool family of birds (Caprimulgidae) known as nightjars. The term nightjar most likely comes from the noisier species in this group like the whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow. The loud nocturnal calls from these birds can “jar” the night. When I lived on Hilton Head, I was jarred from my sleep many summer mornings around 4:30 a.m. by the Chuck-will’s widow that roosted beneath my bedroom window.

These birds also have another strange moniker – goatsucker. This name dates back to the days of Aristotle. On his Web site, montereybay.com, Don Roberson explains how this name came to be: “During the summer, it would not be uncommon for at least some of the livestock to be in breeding condition or have newly born offspring, and females would therefore often have milk dripping from their teats. The shepherds and country people, seeing the shadowy nightjars around their animals at dusk and noticing the milk early in the morning, put the two circumstances together and believed that the birds were sucking milk during the night and that, as a result, their animals would eventually be sucked dry and go blind.”

But in northeastern Louisiana, where I grew up, these night-jarring goatsuckers were known as bullbats. The “bat” part is easy enough as these critters are often seen at dusk hawking insects, bat-like. But the “bull” part is a bit more vague. It may arise from the propensity of the nighthawk for feeding around livestock. It might be because their two-foot wingspan would make them larger than any bat and the largest critters in those southern pastures would be the bulls. Or it might be due to the booming “wuufff” it makes with its wings during its courtship display.

When attracting a mate the males show off their aerial prowess by dive-bombing the females. The males will stoop in a power-dive from 100 feet or more straight towards terra firma — then a few feet from the ground they will pull out by flaring their wings. The wind rushing through the spread primary feathers of the wing produces a mini “sonic-boom.”

Nighthawks are about 10 inches long with disproportionate, long, pointed wings. They are mottled brown above and paler and lightly streaked below. They have a broad white wing bar situated about halfway between the “wrist” or bend in the wing and the tip. The male common nighthawk has a bright white throat patch while the female has a buffy throat patch.

It’s a treat to watch these buoyant acrobatic flyers hawk insects and the parking deck lights draw them in close. But the curtain is closing quickly on this year’s performance as these neotropical migrants are currently headed to South America.

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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