Printed in the Oct. 6, 2004 edition of the I.V. News
A few weeks ago, I was having a quiet, peaceful early morning walk around the town. On coming to a corner, I noticed a couple of scrub jays squawking and flying at an object on the ground by the side of the road. As I walked closer to see what was so interesting, the object on the road opened up one wing and tried to fly out of the area. The wing was very long for such a small bird and it had a very noticeable white band of feathers on the inside surface. As I approached even closer, I saw a huge gaping mouth that didn’t seem to belong to anything other than a shark. It looked like the pictures I’d seen of baby robins in a nest that seem to be all mouth.
After gently picking up the bird, and after trying a local veterinarian, I was directed to Wildlife Images in Grants Pass. There I was told that the bird was a poorwill. They said they would do what they could to help the bird. On returning home I checked my bird books more thoroughly. I am convinced that the injured bird was a common nighthawk. Nighthawks are more widespread in our area while poorwills are more common in eastern Oregon and on further east. The narrow, tapered, falcon-like wing and the white band also are characteristic of the nighthawks.
Common nighthawks, poorwills, and whip-poor-wills are all classified in the family Caprimulgidae. This family, along with the swifts, are usually listed in bird books behind the owls and in front of the hummingbirds and are commonly called the “goatsuckers.” This term is based on the wide gaping mouth, as well as their habit of nesting on the ground, but no proof has been found for their feeding ability among goats.
“Capri” is Latin for goat, such as Capricorn the Goat, but it also means “the smell under the armpits.” I am not sure which meaning was used for naming the Isle of Capri, but I did find that “capricious” has a French derivation and is not based on the two Latin meanings. “Mulg” is Latin for milking so the family name actually means goat milker.
Common nighthawks are often seen in the Illinois Valley in the early evening, swooping high over the trees in search of insects. They are often mistaken for swifts, which are much smaller and swallows which also are smaller and more rapid in their erratic flight patterns. All of these are working diligently to remove flying insects from the evening sky. The nighthawk call is also distinctive and noticeable if you are away from the city noises. It’s described as a nasal or rasping “peent,” with the “t” sound at the end not always audible.
Nighthawks roost on the ground or on low branches, but they sit parallel with the branch, rather than at right angles as most birds. This is probably because their toes do not have the gripping ability that is present in most bird feet. The nighthawk also nests directly on the ground with no nest other than a slight depression or scrape in the soil. Two eggs is usual in a clutch with an incubation period of about nineteen days. They have been seen to nest on flat topped, gravel roofed buildings and even on top of tree stumps. They are a migratory species and will shortly be leaving our area for Southern California and Mexico. But while they remain, they are welcome for insect control and a pleasant experience in the evening, even though they seldom stay in the same area for long.