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Night Birds In the South

Not many of us are familiar with the chuck-will’s-widow, the less familiar but similarly named relative of the whip-poor-will. Chucks and whips are both nocturnal birds of the nightjar family that live in the Southeastern U.S. Even whips are not terribly common, at least not in my lifetime and not in the environments I have called home. I understand that chucks are less common, but that is only an assumption. I’m not really a birder. Their calls are similar, and so I suspect that the “rarity” of the chuck is at least in part because everyone thinks the two birds are actually the same bird—a whip-poor-will.

A few years ago, I was camping with a group of Boy Scouts on the floodplain of the Broad River, not far from Athens. A whip-poor-will shared our valley bottom that evening. In fact, I was pretty sure that I had somehow accidentally zipped the damn bird inside my tent. How can I be so sure it was a whip? Because its song is burned onto my brain’s hippocampus like a tattoo. Whips and chucks are both ground birds that sometimes perch on tree branches low to the ground. I swear that bird must have been perched on top of my tent all night, because search as I did, I could not find it inside with me.

A number of years prior to my camping trip on the Broad River we moved into one of those neighborhoods that calls itself a conservation subdivision. Late one spring evening while sitting outside, we heard bizarre sounds coming from just beyond the tree line. After some sleuthing, we decided it was a chuck-will’s-widow.

Both whips and chucks are members of the family Caprimulgidae. According to Nicholas Lund, writing for Audubon in 2016, the family Caprimulgidae was long known as “goatsuckers.” In fact, the name Caprimulgidae comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, meaning “milker of goats.” The Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder even wrote in 77 A.D. that these strange birds sneak into goat pens at night and suck milk from their udders, causing the goats to go blind. For the record, that’s not true.

Our neighborhood’s chuck stayed around all spring and much of the summer. I am being generous here allowing all of my neighborhood to share ownership of this bird. In reality, it was mine and mine alone. I would leave our bedroom windows open at night far later into the summer than was really comfortable. I loved hearing that bird move around during the night—sometimes nearer my open window, sometimes further away. 

A couple years later, a few new houses were constructed near my own. As soon as the land clearing began, I knew it would jeopardize my bird’s return. Indeed, my bird did not return that year. 

Like a good friend that has moved away, I missed him at first; thought about him as the days grew longer and the evenings warmed. Eventually I thought of him less and less, until he was all but forgotten.

A little over a week ago, my wife and I were sitting outside with our son after dinner just chatting, about nothing really. I was telling a story, I think, slowly building to the crescendo as a good story does, when my wife suddenly bolted upright, eyes wide and pointed off the porch into the dark.

“Did you hear it?” she asked excitedly.

Before I even had time to answer, I did hear it. My bird is back home.

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