[CT Birds] Reading 11

Dennis Varza dennisvz at optonline.net
Thu Sep 29 10:22:03 EDT 2011

Readings 11

Mary Johnston in the opening sentences of “To Have and to Hold” makes  
this rather picturesque allusion to the Whip-poor-will: “The birds  
that sing all day have hushed, and the Horned Owls , the monster  
frogs, and that strange and ominous fowl (if fowl if be, and not, as  
some assert, a spirt damned) which we English call the Whip-poor- 
will, are yet silent.”

There is something uncanny about the nocturnal bird and hi strange  
song, particularly as he is always hear and seldom seen. When he is  
seen it is too late in the evening to get any idea of his colors. The  
white crescent on the neck, and the white outer tail feathers , are  
all that one can discern in the gathering dusk: the rest is a mixture  
of spotty browns.

The base is set with long, stiff, curving bristles, and the mouth is  
extremely large although the bill appears very small. The foot is a  
failure so far as use and appearances go, the claws are tiny and the  
long middle toe has a conspicuous comb on the claw. One never sees  
the bird perched crosswise on anything; wether it be a rock, the  
woodpile , a log or a fence rail, the position is invariable the same— 
a squatting posture, the legs completely hidden, and the body  
parallel with any narrow perch, such as a rail or a stick of wood! It  
is evident the creature would be unable to balance itself the other  
way. As for its flight, that is as silent as the night, there is not  
the rustle of a feather, It shares with the Owl and the Bat an  
absolutely noiseless wing.

The Song is weird, there is nothing like it in all the category of  
Nature’s Music;

There are a lot of musical description and bars of notes

But no two birds sing exactly alike; listen and you will hear a  
distant bird respond in a lower key, with a less interval, and in a  
slower time . . . . Then another individual vary near at hand will  
consider this entirely too slow, and start in vigorously and  
vivaciously . . . .  That seems to be altogether too flippant a  
measure for the next soloist so he corrects the time and the key  
according to his own ideas. . . . . . Observe that he has confined  
his song to an interval of only a second, and is proceeding in a very  
leisurely manner, when he is interrupted by someone else who attempts  
a compromise between extremes on an entirely different  
key . . . . . . . Apparently this variety in the manner of  
chastising  “poor Will” has exhausted the patience of bird number six  
and he breaks in on both the others with an emphatic and vociferous  
instance on the original key, F, but even he must impress his own  
personality on the song so hie proceeds in F minor!

It thus happens that we have been listening to half a dozen Whip-poor- 
wills, whose songs progressively range through the keys, F, D flat,  
G, E flat, A flat, and F minor!

This bird is Nature’s virtuoso in the performance of the Nocturne,  
and it requires but little study to discover the fact that few if any  
of the renderings exactly similar. An attentive ear at close range  
will detect a sound like cuh coming fro the bird’s throat between  
each of the whip-poor-wills, but one must be very near to catch it.  
Evidently it is cause by sucking in the breath and shutting and  
opening the bill preparatory to the next whistle.

Wilson . . . . . writes “ When two or more males meet, their whip- 
poor-will altercations become much more rapid and incessant, as if  
each were straining to overpower or silence the other.   When near  
you often hear an introductory cluck between the notes. At these  
times they fly low, not more than a few feet from the ground,  
skimming about the house and before the door, alighting on the wood  
pile or settling on the roof.

He does his hunting along the water-course and on the borders of the  
woods, . . . . By imitating the song I have often lured one to such  
close quarters that the wings have almost brushed my hat. It is  
certainly a very common bird throughout the Pemigewasset Valley  
(Holderness New Hampshire)

I went a little overboard on the material because of the species  
current rarity.  Few people have much experience with them, and the  
comments reminded me of what it was like back in the day.

Dennis Varza

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